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13th-century mother-of-pearl lacquered box returns to Korea

Sept. 6, 2023 - 21:22 By Kim Hae-yeon
A lacquered box with an inlaid mother-of-pearl chrysanthemum and scroll design, dating back to the 13th century (CHA)

An approximately 800-year-old Goryeo-era "najeonchilgi," a lacquered box with an inlaid mother-of-pearl chrysanthemum and scroll design, was repatriated to Korea from Japan in July, the Cultural Heritage Administration announced at a press conference on Wednesday.

Studies indicate that the box dates back to the 13th century and represents one of fewer than 20 extant pieces of Goryeo-era lacquerware inlaid with mother-of-pearl found worldwide. Currently, the National Museum of Korea holds three such pieces in its collection.

The piece has been held by a Japanese private collector for around 130 years, its existence unknown until the Overseas Korean Cultural Heritage Foundation received information about the item through its Japanese network in July last year.

For the first time in Korea's repatriation efforts, the item was brought to the country between April and May, before its formal acquisition, for a comprehensive examination of how it was produced and the materials used. The National Palace Museum of Korea examined the piece using various methods, including X-ray photography. The CHA and the OKCHF formally repatriated the item in July.

Measuring 33 centimeters in length, 18.5 centimeters in width and 19.4 centimeters in height, the item incorporates wood, lacquer, mother-of-pearl and metal.

It represents an amalgamation of various techniques, involving the meticulous cutting of mother-of-pearl into some 45,000 fragmented tiny pieces and individually affixing them to the backing to create intricate flower and leaf patterns. The designs found on the box include chrysanthemum scrolls, peony scrolls and "yeonjumun," a band design consisting of consecutive dots or circles resembling string beads.

The box also features C-shaped metal thread inlaid around the chrysanthemum blossoms to depict vines, while metal threads comprising two twisted cords, accentuate the outer contours of the box.

Choi Eung-chon, head of the Cultural Heritage Administration, talks about the recently repatriated Goryeo-era lacquered box at the National Palace Museum of Korea on Wednesday. (CHA)

"As soon as we confirmed the authenticity of the item and assessed its remarkable state of preservation, we convened an emergency meeting to acquire the piece before it could be sold to major museums in Japan," said Choi Eung-chon, head of the CHA.

Park Yong-kyu, emeritus professor at Yongin University, said that each Goryeo-era lacquerware exhibits distinct details in terms of shapes and carving sizes. “In addition to Goryeo celadon and Buddhist paintings, lacquerware stands as a masterpiece of Goryeo times, further igniting academic interest and research among scholars," Park said.

While the date for public exhibition of the returned piece has not been decided, the artifact will be housed at the NPMK for further research.