This superbly carved box is characteristic of the finest specimens of early Ming lacquer. The lively dragon is masterfully rendered in its dramatically twisting body in pursuit of a flaming pearl, its movement skilfully captured by the thickly built-up layers of lacquer to successfully convey a sense of three-dimensionality. Imperial lacquer wares of the Yongle period are so impeccably executed that the Qianlong Emperor (r. 1736-1795) praised them as the most prosperous period of lacquer craftsmanship.
The Yongle Emperor is well known as an active patron of the arts, which as a result flourished during his reign. The remarkable workmanship of imperial lacquer objects from this period can be attributed to the strict supervision by the Court on the Guoyuanchang (Orchard Workshop), which was set up by the Yuyongjian (Office of Imperial Use), following the re-establishment of Beijing as the imperial capital. Located outside the Forbidden City, the workshop was staffed with the most skilled craftsmen summoned from all over China, and was headed by Zhang Degang, son of the famous lacquer craftsman of the Yuan dynasty, Zhang Cheng. The five-clawed dragon depicted on the box cover is a classic Yongle design, also embroidered as a medallion on the robe the Emperor wears on his most famous portrait preserved in the Palace Museum, Taipei (fig. 1).
Yongle mark and period boxes of this form and design are very rare and only few examples appear to be published: a slightly smaller version, from the collections of Mrs Walter Sedgwick and Frederick Knight, included in the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong exhibition 2000 years of Chinese Lacquer, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1993, cat. no. 45, was sold in our London rooms, 15th October 1968, lot 33, and again in these rooms, 18th May 1982, lot 45 (fig. 2); another in the Taipei Palace Museum, inscribed with a Yongle mark and period beneath a carved Xuande mark, is illustrated in Carving the Subtle Radiance of Colours. Treasures Lacquerware in the National Palace Museum, Taipei, 2014, pl. 33 (fig. 3). Compare also a third box, but with the dragon carved on a diaper ground and a variation of the cloud design, in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated in Lacquerware in the Collection of the Palace Museum. Classics of the Forbidden City, Beijing, 2012, pl. 21.
The design on this box is closely related to examples with Xuande marks, suggesting that such motifs may have been made by craftsmen working at the Imperial Court during both reigns. Such boxes are equally rare and virtually all in Museum collections. A box of related size and workmanship inscribed with a Xuande mark is preserved in the Shanghai Museum, illustrated in Wang Shixiang, Ancient Lacquerware, Beijing, 1987, pl. 54 (fig. 4); while another is in the Palace Museum, Beijing, illustrated Lacquerware in the Collection of the Palace Museum, op. cit., pl. 33; a third in the Tokyo National Museum, Tokyo, was included in the Museum’s exhibition Toyo no Urushi Kogei [Oriental Lacquer Arts], Tokyo, 1977, cat. no. 514; and a further example was sold on three occasions in these rooms, most recently on 4th April 2012, lot 3200. See also an unmarked example in the Linden-Museum, Stuttgart, published in Monika Kopplin, Im Zeichen der Drachen [In the sign of the dragons], Munchen, 2006, pl. 43, as well as another, possibly the same box, illustrated in Fritz Low-Beer, ‘Chinese Lacquer of the Early 15th Century’, B.M.F.E.A. no. 22, Stockholm, 1950, pl. 14.