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Rare set of m-o-p boxes and matching counters




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CHINESE M-O-P GAMING BOXES SET

 

This set must have been a very special commission from Canton. It consists of four matching mother-of-pearl boxes with unmarked silver mounts. They boxes measure slightly over two inches wide and one inch and three eighths high. The four octagonal boxes each bear a different card suit heightened in coloured enamel. The dense decoration on the lids and counters is typical of that used on standard Chinese gaming counters in around 1780. The sides are less densely decorated  and the base is plain.

Opening the lids, one finds that each box contains ten large octagonal mother-of-pearl counters variously marked with the four card suits to match the lids and numbered from 60 to 720 in unequal steps. It is likely that each box originally contained thirteen matching counters as the stacked counters do not reach the lip of the boxes; the numbers are:

60/80/100/120/140/160/180/200/240/360/480/600/720.  Some have probably been lost from each set.  This raises the question about the original purpose of the set: it would appear likely that these counters were not intended for placing wagers or bets but rather for scoring in a card game. There were numerous card games in common use at the time such as Loo, Piquet, Voltarete, Ombre, Quadrille, and Pope Joan and such was the social importance of card-games as a pastime that many more games came and went leaving few traces. This set must have been ordered with one of these games in mind. There are few other clues as to their original owner; the shape of the club suit may suggest that they were copied from English playing cards as there were variations in the design used on French cards but this is hardly decisive. It is also of great interest that the heart suit is consistently upside-down on lids and counters alike- a mistake that no European worker would ever make! This is obviously the result of the person ordering the set making assumptions about the artist's cultural background -  and coming unstuck. Fortunately it is not as disastrous as some of the mistakes made on those huge armorial porcelain dinner services. What is clear though is that it must have been ordered by a very rich and patient person who could afford to commission this very unusual set and to wait at least two years for it to arrive in Europe. Standard sets of high-quality counters were expensive enough but special non-standard sets must have had an eye-watering price ticket. Is it thinkable that this was a unique set?


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