Christie’s Brings Traditional Japanese Boxes to Auction as Part of Asian Art Week

James Ardis
Published on
Lacquer writing box (suzuri-bako) with a pheasant on rocks. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
Lacquer writing box (suzuri-bako) with a pheasant on rocks. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

The Japanese suzuri-bako, or “inkstone box,” was specifically designed to hold calligraphy tools. Inkstones, sticks, water droppers, and sometimes even paper had its place. To protect the boxes from moisture, they were often made of lacquered wood. Popular decorations on these boxes changed over the centuries, from minimalistic designs to literary allusions to symbols for the changing seasons.

Several examples of the suzuri-bako, along with other traditional Japanese boxes, are on offer this month in the timed Crafted Landscape auction, presented by Christie’s. Among them is a lacquer writing box decorated with a pheasant standing on a pine tree (estimate: USD 12,000 – $18,000). Surrounding the pheasant on the outside of the box are hundreds of gold inlays starkly contrasted against the black background. The inside shows a scene of water hitting the rocks on a shoreline.

This box, like several others available in the Christie’s sale, was made during the Edo period. At that time, many writing boxes served as part of a dowry. Iconography selected for such boxes was intended to bring good luck to the newlyweds. The symbol of the pheasant on this box, though, would have had a very different meaning. “Early court poetry has often commented on how pheasants are found in pairs or groups during the day, but separate at night,” explains Christie’s in the lot description, “this tendency prompting poets to associate the bird with loneliness.”

A Rimpa style lacquer writing box (suzuri-bako). Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
A Rimpa style lacquer writing box (suzuri-bako). Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

Another suzuri-bako, this time from the later Meiji period, is among the featured lots (estimate: $6,000 – $8,000). The exterior depicts a doe leaning her head back with an autumn scene behind her. The connection between the doe and autumn foliage had significance to viewers at the time of the box’s creation. Early Japanese poetry often associated the cry of deer with the particular sadness of the fall season.

This writing box was made in the Rimpa style. The style was also commonly applied to other decorative art forms, including ceramics. It prioritizes nature scenes, particularly ones that serve as literary allusions. Another defining characteristic of Rimpa is an emphasis on vibrant colors, such as the gold background and mother-of-pearl inlays in this writing box. It first reached popularity during the Edo period, but would later be revived in the Meiji period.

The Meiji period also saw a rise in popularity of the suzuri-bako outside of Japan. Much of this is credited to world expositions at the start of the 20th century. Japanese participants would often show these writing boxes as an example of their traditional culture. This was also a time of experimentation for suzuri-bako, including the introduction of different shapes and many artists employing a more Modernist aesthetic.

A lacquer cake box (kashi-bako) with scattered cherry blossoms. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.
A lacquer cake box (kashi-bako) with scattered cherry blossoms. Photo courtesy of Christie’s.

Asian decorative art collectors will also find other traditional Japanese boxes, including this kashi-bako, or cake box (estimate: $4,000 – $6,000). Like the writing boxes, this kashi-bako is made of lacquered wood. It is also decorated with a nature scene, this time of cherry blossoms against a gold background. 

The cake box available in this auction dates back to the Edo period, a time in which Japanese sweets rapidly developed. One reason for this was the expansion of imports from China, including sugar. Popular sweets during the Edo period included wagashi, which comes in many varieties and is often paired with tea.

The Crafted Landscape timed auction began on September 10th and will conclude on October 1st at 10 AM EDT. Register to bid and view each of the lots on Christie’s website. This sale is part of Christie’s Asian Art Week events, which also include auctions dedicated to contemporary Asian art, religious sculptures from across the continent, and other categories. Visit Christie’s Asian Art Week page to learn more.