Cinnabar lacquers

During the Neolithic period, the Chinese used a resin extracted from the lacquer tree to waterproof the wood, especially for burials, and to make some ritual objects.

Subsequently, the use of this resin became widespread and is found in the manufacture of everyday objects such as dishes and in the decoration of furniture, cabinets and screens.

Gradually, the art of lacquerware spread to the countries of Southeast Asia and Japan.

Chinese craftsmen enjoy working with lacquer in different ways and discover new techniques to produce works that are increasingly finely crafted. By superimposing layers of lacquer, they manage to sculpt it according to the “guri” technique, to incorporate pigments, gold or silver powder or to inlay small elements in particular in mother-of-pearl, gold and ivory to give relief to the decoration.

In its natural state, the lacquer is greyish-white, which gradually turns to dark brown as it dries and hardens. To keep its transparency, users filter the resin and remove the water it contains by heating it.

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Very soon, artists sought to obtain different shades of lacquer and added pigments such as pine soot, arsenic sulphide or lead carbonate, giving black, green or brown and white to grey lacquers respectively. They could superimpose layers of lacquers of different colours which are revealed during the chiselling process.  One of the lacquers most appreciated by collectors is red. It is obtained by colouring the resin with cinnabar or mercury sulphide, a mineral pigment that was already used in prehistoric times for cave painting and was used in the composition of elixirs of immortality at the beginning of the Common Era. It is important to ask for an estimate of the cinnabar lacquer boxes, trays or bowls before an auction. In order to estimate the provenance and authenticity of a cinnabar lacquer, professionals specialized in Asian art base their expertise on the study of the motifs, the fineness of the sculptures or inlays and the possible marks engraved by the artists on the pieces reserved for the imperial family.
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