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Medium-sized red lacquer cabinet

Medium-sized red lacquer cabinet with gilt painting of vases and figures, ca. 1850 from Shanxi, China. Such painted cabinets usually come in black or red, with gold leaf painted of either people, landscapes, or fixed objects on the doors. And they come in sizes – small (bedside table), medium (this photo), and large (big enough for a big TV plus entertainment-center accouterments). The scenes can be simple, as with this cabinet, or elaborate depictions of households and landscapes and even scenes from novels or religious stories. They were used to store items ranging from clothing to painting scrolls, art objects and calligraphy brushes.

This particular cabinet is medium-sized and was found in relatively good condition. Mist of the needed restoration is in the two front legs, which will be sanded, filled and then relacquered to match the rest of the piece. The gold-leaf paint is largely intact, although a long way from perfect.

These painted cabinets often present a catch-22 for the restoration shop. The amount of accumulated grime on the front can dictate a choice between preserving the red (or black) pigment or the gilt painting. If the cabinet is cleaned enough to reveal the red, then large parts of the gilt painting become lost or faded. If just the painting is revealed, the red will look dirty.

Most restoration shops will clean down to the pigment and either leave traces of the painting or touch it up. This touchup can usually be spotted because the gold color is brighter than its surrounding gilt. But when you see a cabinet such as this, and the painting is intact, it has been touched up 95 percent of the time.

There is nothing wrong with that, but it should be disclosed.