It comes from the collection of the late Major Edward Copleston Radcliffe (1898-1967), having been acquired at Sotheby’s in London in 1946 and then displayed at the National Gallery of South Africa’s Chinese Exhibition in Cape Town in 1953.
It is one of just five known examples and seemingly the only one to remain in private hands.
Dr Yingwen Tao, specialist in Chinese and Asian art at Dreweatts, believes all were made by the same craftsman for the emperor. “There is every indication that all five were made in the same imperial workshop as crucially all are doubly marked with an incised Xuande six-character reign mark on the underside of the box and the interior of the cover. They also all have similar designs and are uniform in size [5in/12cm in diameter].”
Mark Newstead, director of Asian ceramics and works of art at Dreweatts, found the piece among other Chinese works of art still displayed in a cabinet in the attic of a family home as it had been when Major Radcliffe (pictured below) died in 1967.
“When I first inspected the piece, it looked too good to be true as 99.9% of Xuande marked pieces are later copies,” Newstead said. “It is one of the most copied marks of all time and is found on pieces from the 16th, 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. I assumed it was made in the 16th or early 17th century and it was only when we were able to compare it with the example at Fenton House that we started to believe it could be a ‘lost’ example of this rare group.”
The making of cloisonné enamel in the early Ming period was strictly regulated by the palace eunuchs, who operated under the auspices of the Yuyongjian, a sub-division of the Neifu, ‘The Inner Treasury’, responsible for supplies to the Imperial Household.
This box has a printed estimate of £6000-10,000 in the Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art & Japanese, Indian & Islamic Ceramics & Works of Art auction, although Dreweatts now believes that is “now looking extremely modest, even in its slightly damaged condition.”