Study of Objects from the Getty Museum and other Institutions

As research on lacquered furniture in the collections of the J. Paul Getty Museum (JPGM) progressed, new evidence has come to light to suggest that a wider variety of raw materials than previously believed (many imported from Southeast Asia) were used in the manufacture of 17th-century Japanese export lacquerware.

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Of particular significance, the Japanese lacquer panels on four pieces of French furniture in the Getty's collections were made using significant amounts of thitsi lacquer, primarily in the underlying foundation layers. It appears that this material was used for reasons of economy; 17th-century trade records of the Dutch East India Company support this interpretation.

Evidence of other unusual material additives was also discovered. A substance referred to as wood oil, derived primarily from Dipterocarpus species native to Southeast Asia, was identified in several objects. Wood oil, which was available in large quantities to Dutch traders, may have been added as a low-cost diluent to the lacquer. Preliminary results also suggest the occasional presence of other additives or adulterants such as fermented persimmon juice, gum benzoin and shellac. While the significance of these latter findings is not entirely clear, they lead to interesting speculation and underscore the need for further research.

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Presently, analysis of lacquered objects from other museum and institutional collections is at an early stage. In contrast to the JPGM lacquered furniture collection, which is made up of Asian export lacquer, many of the objects sampled from other institutions were domestic lacquerware sold for use within Japan and China. Samples from most of the domestic lacquer objects are smaller than the minimum amount required by the existing TMAH-Py-GC/MS procedure, necessitating a delay in testing until the more sensitive analytical procedure is developed. Nonetheless, the preliminary test results from the larger samples are consistent with the range of materials that were identified in the JPGM furniture collection.

Page updated: September 2010