A large black lacquer and gilt-painted coffer Ming Dynasty, Wanli Period
The present lacquer coffer is a rare example of imperial furniture made during the Wanli period. The gold painted dragon motif is associated with the Emperor and suggests that this coffer was possibly made by artists working in the Imperial Furniture Workshop (Yu Yong Jian) to house the valuables of the emperor and his family. It was during the Wanli period that surface gold-painted lacquers of imperial quality were commissioned for the first time. The closest comparable example to this coffer is a pair of black lacquer chests similarly painted in gold with confronting dragons chasing a flaming pearl, from the Jaehne collection and now in the Newark Museum, New Jersey, illustrated in 'Chinese Art from the Newark Museum', China Institute in America, 1980, no. 25, p. 46. It is worth noting that these chests at one stage also had their tops reversed as can be seen on this coffer.
Compare also a black lacquered wooden chest decorated with dragons in gold, from the Qing Court collection and still in Beijing, illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties (I), Hong Kong, 2002, pl. 190; and another black lacquered chest, similarly attributed to the Wanli period, decorated with a closely related dragon motif in mother-of-pearl inlay, ibid., pl. 192. See also a black and gilt lacquer square box and cover with a related dragon decoration sold at Christie's London, 5th June 1995, lot 292.
Wang Shixiang in Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture, vol. 1, Chicago, 1999, p. 14, notes that the great number of Wanli objects found in the royal collection compared with those of earlier reigns proves the court's great interest in lacquered furniture at this time. The Yu Yong Jian, located in the Imperial Palace, was in charge of making furniture for the Emperor and the imperial family. Liu Ruoyu, a eunuch in the palace during Wanli's reign, wrote about the production of the Yu Yong Jian in his account Zhuo zhong zhi (A Chronicle of Life in the Imperial Ming Household) in which he mentions that 'all imperial furniture such as hardwood beds, tables, cabinets... lacquer trays and boxes and others were all supplied by this organization (ibid., p. 16).