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Sotheby's Hong Kong to Offer an Extraordinary Tang Dynasty Tortoiseshell and Mother-of-Pearl Box
The Magnificent Large Tortoiseshell Octagonal Box and Cover Inlaid with Mother-of-pearl. Photo: Sotheby's.

HONG KONG.- Sotheby’s Hong Kong will offer an extraordinary single lot - The Magnificent Large Tortoiseshell Octagonal Box and Cover Inlaid with Mother-of-pearl in the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art sales series on 8th April 2009 at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre. It is expected to fetch in excess of HK$40 million.

Mr. Nicolas Chow, Sotheby’s International Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art, commented “This magnificent box represents one of the most precious and certainly rarest Tang dynasty artefacts that have ever come on the market. There is no other institution in the world that holds Tang dynasty heirloom pieces apart from the Shōsōin in Nara and the present box deserves a place in one of the world’s greatest museums or private collections.”

The tortoiseshell box is an object of the utmost luxury, of outstanding craftsmanship and elegance which embodies the mature style of the ‘High Tang’ period of the mid-8th century. It is a testimony to the exquisite taste and a reflection of the pleasures of imperial life at one of the most glorious moments in Chinese history, when the Tang (AD 618-907) was at the height of their power and in the centre of the international spotlight.

This is one of the only three almost identical tortoise-shell boxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl and amber, all probably originally preserved in the Shōsōin. Of the other two, one still remains in the Shōsōin, the other is preserved in the Museum Yamato Bunkakan, also in Nara. No other extremely large tortoiseshell item appears otherwise to be extant from the Tang dynasty. The box remaining in the Tōdaiji repository is one of Shōsōin’s most celebrated treasures and has frequently been published and exhibited.

The materials used in the manufacture of this box were among the most precious of the day. Tortoiseshell, from the hawksbill turtle, was an extremely rare substance, rarely fashioned into larger receptacles. The striking, complex mother-of-pearl inlay work is known only from a few other equally extraordinary and rare art objects preserved in the Shōsōin.

There exists only one site in the world today where objects of organic materials, of this age and quality, have been preserved: the Shōsōin (repository compound) of the Tōdaiji (Great Eastern Temple) in Nara. The Shōsōin is a unique mid-8th century time capsule, which preserves some of the finest and most fragile Tang dynasty luxury goods that have not survived anywhere else. The Shōsōin of Tōdaiji was not only the grandest repository, but it is the only one that still exists today. Founded by Emperor Shōmu (AD 724-749), Tōdaiji was the government temple and Buddhist head temple, and as such represented the most influential temple complex of the period, and remains one of the most important Buddhist sites in Japan today. Its accompanying repository (Shōsō), built in AD 756, received massive donations at the time and still contains around 10,000 items today. Most important among them are the most cherished personal belongings of Emperor Shōmu, which the Empress Dowager Kōmyō donated to the Temple upon her husband’s death as a sign of her devotion. The wooden construction of this 8th century treasure house in the form of a log cabin on stilts, with a raised floor, is celebrated for its highly efficient system of climate control, which has ensured the preservation of even highly fragile materials, which have not survived otherwise. The personal belongings of the Emperor naturally included the most exquisite goods available at the time from many parts of the world, but mainly imported from Tang China. Among them were many items made of organic materials, such as textiles, lacquerware and wooden items, as well as articles in much rarer media such as the present box. The Shōsōin repository thus offers a unique glimpse into a cornucopia of luxury goods then made in China and available in imperial households.

Provenance of the Magnificent Large Tortoiseshell Octagonal Box and Cover Inlaid with Mother-of-pearl
The box was reputedly in the collection of Sanji Muto (武藤山治:1867-1934), a businessman and statesman born in Ehime. After graduating from the Keio Gijuku in 1884, he went to the United States in the following year. Returning to Japan in 1887, he then founded Japan's first newspaper advertisement agency in Ginza. After experiencing a number of different occupations, including journalism, Muto joined the Mitsui Bank at the invitation of Hikojiro Nakamigawa to help in the Mitsui Financial Reform of 1893. The following year, he moved to the Kanegafuchi Spinning Company and became its president in 1921. Muto was also active as a Diet member from 1924 and resigned as president of Kanebo in 1930. After leaving the political world in 1932, he became the president of Jiji Shinpo Sha, a newspaper company. While denouncing the corruption of the government and financial circles that were disclosed in the Teijin Incident, he was shot to death.

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