Today clothes can make the man or woman, but in Imperial China a simple hat was all it took. During the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty (1644-1912), a mandarin, or civil official, had a different hat for every occasion. As the hats were fragile and difficult to store, their owners commissioned a box for each one—a sturdy custom-made, round, flat, conical, or tiered case. As often happens, the containers outlasted their contents, and over time they have taken on a value of their own. Like the flat-woven kilims that Turkish rug dealers used to wrap Oriental carpets in before sending them to Europe, the humble hatbox, once considered strictly utilitarian, has become a collector's item.
The hatbox, like the hat itself, neatly placed its owner in the court hierarchy: The higher the rank, the better the material. The wealthiest officials might have commissioned hatboxes of carved coconut shell and inlaid lacquer, while the less wealthy ordered hatboxes of pigskin or water-buffalo leather. Regional preferences also dictated the choice of material: Boxes from the warm southern provinces were often made of camphor wood, the fragrance of which repels insects.
After the Republican Revolution of 1911 hats were suddenly anachronistic—like court dress and the queue. Then, during the Cultural Revolution of the '60s, the possession of Manchu hats became politically dangerous—they were a signal that a family had either noble or bourgeois lineage. Many hats were destroyed, but their boxes ended up, for the most part, in the countryside storing spices and onions, or were simply left outside to disintegrate from rain and moisture.
Most of the Imperial-era hatboxes in antiques shops today probably date from around 1870 to 1911. Jon Eric Riis, a tapestry artist from Atlanta who deals in 18th- and 19th-century Chinese and Japanese textiles, has about 25 hatboxes, the earliest of which is ca. 1800. Hong Kong dealer Andy Ng has a few older examples among the roughly 500 boxes stored in his warehouse in Macao. "The newest are about one hundred years old, while the oldest are two hundred fifty," Ng says. They range in price from around $300 for a simple leather, bamboo, or wicker one to $3,000 for gilt-decorated lacquer boxes from the 18th century.
"I've seen hardwood hatboxes inlaid with mother-of-pearl and precious stones, copper cases decorated with Canton enamel, and one box made entirely of tortoiseshell," says New York dealer William Lipton. "These are quite rare and today might fetch prices as high as $10,000 to $20,000." Lipton's collection includes 19th-century boxes of plaited bamboo with most of the lacquer worn off, leaving a deep mahogany patina, and one unusual lacquered box with a gilt design of butterflies and peaches. But his current favorite is an austere black-lacquer cone with a trace of slightly raised gold painting. "It is an expression of craftsmanship applied to something very utilitarian," he says. "I find it very moving because the craftsman has given so much life to something rather ordinary."
William Lipton Ltd., 27 East 61st Street, New York, NY; 212-751-8131. Jon Eric Riis $ , 875 Piedmont Avenue N.E., Atlanta, GA; 404-881-9847; Andy Ng, Art Treasures Gallery, 42 Hollywood Road, Hong Kong; 852-25-430-430
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