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Chinese export mother of pearl gaming counters/ chips - all you need to know about them in one site: history, styles, dates, armorials, non-armorials, sets, lacquer boxe.....

home - references - Lacquer boxes and 'sets' of counters - Styles of boxes and trays.

Styles of boxes and trays.

It became fashionable, particularly in the 19th century, to have Chinese lacquered boxes in which to store and transport the counters. The finest sets would often also have the crest or coat of arms painted onto the box lids.

In many cases the exterior box lid has performed its intended function - to protect the interior. Such is the case with the first box illustrated. The box was probably made in around 1815 in Canton. As soon as the lid is removed the effect is quite surprising; the interior boxes look like brand new. With this particular style of box there is one large and four smaller interior lidded boxes.

Even more exciting for the collector is the fact that there are still all 140 figures matching counters in the boxes. It became normal, by about 1800 or perhaps earlier, for counters to be ordered in sets of 140 in three shapes: in this case 80 long-oblong, 40 oval and 20 round. There are other common combinations of shapes but 140 is a standard total. Each of the numbers is divisible by 4 so all four boxes could start off with the same number of counters: this was specifically required for some of the games played at the time. Each shape would have had a different monetary value. The longer central box would have held packs of cards.

The potential historical interest of collecting these counters should not be underestimated: this particular set was produced in around 1815 as will be seen from comparison with similar counters with "drilled" borders (see period 2 counters). It bears the arms of the Prescott family of Theobald's Park, Hertfordshire, as described by Burke's General Armory; "Sable a chevron between three owls argent" with a crest of "a cubit arm erect, vested gules, cuffed ermine holding in the hand a pitch-pot (or hand beacon) sable fired proper".

The shield is divided into two halves vertically; the second coat of arms (on the right) is for the Tully family of Wetherall Abbey, Cumberland; "Argent on a chevron gules three escallops or, in chief a lion passant". This is an impalement and may signify that the counters were produced for the marriage of a Mr Prescott and a Miss Tully.

The study of the counters becomes even more intriguing, however, when considered in conjunction with details of porcelain production. Essential reading for this is contained in Chinese Armorial Porcelain written by David Sanctuary Howard; volume 1 was produced in 1974 and is itself a collector's item; volume 2 was produced in 2003 and is readily available. These are immensely interesting refence works with a wealth of information about trade with China and the Honourable East India Company. A significant proportion of sets of made-to-order counters were produced to accompany the Chinese porcelain services which were the height of fashion in the stately homes of the 18th and 19th centuries. Below is an entry from Chinese Armorial Porcelain volume 2 (page 545) relating to the service produced for the Prescott family (reproduced with the kind permission of the author).


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