Antique Japanese lacquer boxes can be tiny treasures

Antique Japanese Inro. Credit: Celestial Nonesuch

According to my dealer friends shops are beginning to reopen and collectors are buying. There are bargains to be had in such categories as small, Oriental lacquer boxes. Tiny Japanese lacquer boxes known as Inro are the most popular when you can find them.

You may have a valuable piece of antique lacquer hidden away somewhere in a family attic. Consider that travelers and military service people brought back small lacquer souvenirs over the years. Since they are usually small they may have been overlooked at downsizing of family estate sales. Only a few years ago you could discover lacquer bowls, trays and boxes and other items for $50 and under, even at antique shows. It was possible to start a handsome collection. Then, serious moneyed collectors got interested and the hunt was on. Depending on the workmanship, size, age and category prices went up. Then reproductions began showing up. Japanese inros, used to contain medicines can cost as little as $200 or several thousand dollars. These days women are using them as a fashionable way to carry their own pills, or just as jewelry.

Some of the best examples of small lacquer pieces are miniature works of art containing a variety of painting techniques. Small carvings made of baleen (whalebone) are sometimes covered with lacquer. Boxes are more common and may range from a small, delicate incense box to an elaborate tea container. Many pieces were exported to the U.S. from China and Japan for the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial.

While the core of lacquered objects is usually wood, other times the base may be metal, unglazed porcelain, papier Mache’ and baleen. In the case of furniture, several craftsmen were involved: cabinet-makers to put the piece together, a lacquer painter to put on the base coat and the decorator.

Historically, lacquer dates back as far as 300 B.C. Many pieces have survived and have been discovered during 20th century excavations. While the Japanese learned the art from the Chinese, the Japanese are considered to be the masters.

Typically Chinese are the black lacquer trays and boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl and furniture and screens decorated with incised, chiseled and built-up lacquer designs known as coromandel.

The Japanese used three techniques to decorate even the most humble pieces. Powdered metals were sprinkled on the object, then transparent lacquer was brushed on. Sometimes large gold flakes were placed in the lacquer along with silver or gold foil inlays. Often a drawing was made on the raw lacquer and filled in with colored powder in successive layers. Some designs are a three-dimensional buildup of molded lacquer. These are covered with gold lacquer. More elaborate examples combine raised inlays with amber, tortoise shell and ivory.

CLUES: Though many pieces are signed, the signature is not necessarily that of the artist. It may be signed by the person putting the final coat of lacquer on the box, or even the maker of the box.

Many fake boxes are plastic that is hard to tell from authentic lacquer.

In the Japanese lifestyle of the past there seems to have been a lacquer box for just about everything. Some collectors narrow down their categories to “Inro”, the small medicine boxes. Most common are those made in the mid-19th century. The small, flat, oval boxes were originally meant to be worn at the wrist by men and attached to the belt with a silk cord. They often had several compartments to hold medicines or sweetmeats. Many an Inro is a complicated, tiny piece of art worked on by an entire family.