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Don’t Throw Out the Box: Japanese Tomobako are Certificates of Authenticity

by David Pike (09/26/12).

I recently sold an old, white slipped tea bowl. I was surprised when the person who bought it left feedback that said the bowl was great but that the box had seen better days and wasn’t usable. He didn’t realize that the box was the equivalent of a Certificate of Authenticity.

Certificates of Authenticity, COA, with the stamp of an expert, are found not only in the West. Japan has them too. In Japan, they often accompany pieces bought at large department stores. They have always seemed strange alongside their more difficult-to-understand, native-to-Japan counterpart, tomobako, 共箱 .

COAs are issued in the West by large auction houses, museums and, more recently, by businesses that are trying to centralize the issuance and attributes they contain. Tomobako, by contrast, serve two functions. The first and original job they have is to protect the piece they hold. They are a home for the object to reside in, keeping it safe from being bumped, protecting it from dust and sun. Japanese people have taken it a step further, evolving them into a certificate of authenticity. The box “fetish” may seem strange to those who are used to an auction house-issued COA. The writing on a tomobako is usually done by someone who is well known, so the characteristics of the calligraphy are individually identifiable. That person has staked his reputation on the contents being genuine. If the box has a poem or praise written on it, and is then signed by someone of renown, this will increase the value of the piece.

A little aside from the With Friends Like That Department; Some years back, a well-known ceramics expert in Japan, Koyama Fujio, a member of the prestigious committee that gives items “Important Cultural Property” designation, recommended that a recently unearthed ceramics shard be declared an Important Cultural Property. The shard had actually been produced by Koyama’s friend, Kato Tokuro, and buried, along with a genuine ceramic piece as a prank. The resulting scandal caused both Koyama and Kato to resign from their prominent positions. It is no wonder that tomobako lids and signatures are seen as somewhat superior to just having a company name behind an attribution.

A tomobako lid with the accompanying calligraphy.

The interior of a Okamoto Kinzo kogo tomobako lid.

The lid of a cheaper tomobako with writing on the back.

A signed box lid that has faded from age.

Tomobako serve that function well. They are rarely far from the piece they are companioned with. When there is a tomobako, the price of the piece often times doubles or be worth even 10 times the amount compared to the item if there isn’t one. Tomobako are most often found with tea ceremony utensils. Scrolls, pots to heat the water for the tea ceremony, etc. also have tomobako.

What is written on the box and by who often times determines how valuable the box is when it is paired with the piece. If it were to become separated from the piece, it would be as valuable as a COA that is separated from the piece it certifies. Close to zero.

Types of Tomobako

There are many types of boxes. The name of the box will change depending on how they are constructed, the design of and number of stops the lid has, number of joins and type of joinery used, etc. One aspect that is consistent with high-quality boxes is the material used to make them. The traditional and most common material is wood from the Paulownia tree. Paulownia wood is pest, disease and rot resistant. It is an ecologically positive tree as it has a higher than average CO2 conversion rate and it grows very quickly. The leaves can be found in the official seals of the Japanese Prime Minister and other government offices. Paulownia chests last more than 150 years, which is very long for a light wood that repels pests.

Styles of tomobako vary widely. Most have lids on the top and the piece is lifted in and out of the box. Some have front sliding lids, mostly seen for items such as plates that slide in and out, (front load), easier than being lifted in and out. There are boxes that the “lid” is everything but the bottom. When opening the box one lifts the box off and what is left is the piece inside and the bottom of the box.

A lid made with four rails to hold it in place.

A bottom view of tomobako with cord holes.

Quality tomobako are made without nails. Joinery and wooden pegs hold it together. If you are looking at a piece that is being sold as a very old piece, for example early 1800s, and it comes with a tomobako, there are a few things to look for. Very old tomobako have round cord holes. The cord holes are where the cord for tying the lid pass through the bottom of the box. From about the mid to late 1800’s on, the cord holes are rectangular. Earlier cord holes will be round as will the cord. The presence of older, round cord or round holes isn’t in and of itself a guarantee of authenticity. There are specialist stores in Osaka and Tokyo that sell every part of the tomobako. The lids, cord hole wood, old cord, old fabric for wrapping the item, etc.

Types of Lids

There are many types of lids. Among the most common are:

• A ‘lid’ that goes over the top of the piece and connects with the bottom is called a kabusebuta.
• A lid that slides up and down on the front of the box on rails is called an otoshito.
• A tongue twister of a name is futakatakakehashifuta. It is used for lids that have two rails on the backside that hold the lid in place.
• A lid that has four rails on the backside is called a shihokakehashifuta.

Writing on Tomobako

A calligraphy seal on an expensive tomobako. Notice the visible wooden pegs holding the box together.

A signed box for a knife.

A signed chashaku box. Chashaku are powdered tea scoops.

A box signed with the Chinese Song period.

One of the big problems for Japanese and non-Japanese alike is reading the calligraphy on boxes. It is similar to reading cursive English. Some of it is decipherable, some of it is barely so. An interesting aspect of calligraphy is its individuality and is an identifiable marker of an individual hand. The calligrapher also has to have a sure hand, since once the brush hits the wood, there is no erasing.

The writing will often describe, in simple terms, what is in the box. It may also have the name of the maker if it is a relatively new piece, say post-1850s or so. It may have an area name if it is an older piece. There often will be a red impressed seal, a rakkan, if either the person who made the piece was well known or if the person who wrote a tribute was well known. The top of the box will often be covered by Japanese paper, washi, to protect the calligraphy.

Scrolls in tomobako original wooden box.

Before 1868, the end of the Edo period, the rules governing tomobako were far less stringent than post Edo. There was a much freer use of tributes and poems. The generation of Japanese who were born in the Meiji period(1869-1912), the period following the Edo period, still wrote tomobako lids with the looser convention, so it isn’t uncommon to see boxes written into the 1970s and 1980s that have all types of calligraphy play on them.

One last note on authentication seals: The tomoseal is a seal found on the back of pictures. It is slightly larger than a business card and has the artist’s name and rakuin.

So know you know: when you buy Japanese antiques don’t throw away the box.

David Pike is a Worthologist who specializes in items from Japan, including porcelain.

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2 Responses to “Don’t Throw Out the Box: Japanese Tomobako are Certificates of Authenticity”

  1. Dean Kelly says:

    David,
    Thank you for an informative aticle. This is not an area I know much about.
    Dean Kelly

  2. David Pike says:

    Hello Dean,
    Thanks for reading. Tomobako are interesting.
    Dave

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