A major project to save one of the finest pieces of exported Japanese lacquer is under way in Britain.

It is hoped that the four years of collaboration between British and Japanese experts will build mutual understanding and provide future conservators with information on the best preservation techniques.

The item drawing so much care and attention is an elaborately decorated black wooden lacquer chest thought to have been made in Kyoto in the late 1630s.

It was manufactured specifically for the overseas market and was probably shipped directly to Europe.

Historians suspect that at one time it was owned by French statesman Jules Mazarin, as his descendants’ coat of arms was found on the chest’s key.

It passed through the hands of various French aristocrats before showing up in Britain in 1800, where it was purchased in 1882 by the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Over the years, the chest suffered light damage and was thought to be too fragile to send all the way to Japan for restoration. Some of the lacquer had cracked — due largely to fluctuations in humidity — and the gold and metal foil decoration began to peel away. In addition, some of the shell inlay had become loose.

The museum decided to keep it in London and invited one of Japan’s leading lacquer specialists, Yoshihiko Yamashita, to help with the conservation work.

Yamashita, working alongside the museum’s own senior furniture conservator, Shayne Rivers, began work in 2004, and they expect to finish the project in 2008. It is expected to cost around 28.5 million yen. They are painstakingly cleaning the surface and have taken microscopic samples of lacquer to see what material is best to strengthen the surface, which has been weakened by tiny cracks.

Rivers said the results of those tests show it would probably be best to apply more “urushi,” which is made from the sap of the Asian lacquer tree, to the affected areas, rather than a synthetic resin. In addition, they have carried out more than 100 tests to find the most suitable kinds of adhesives for the loose foil decoration.

“I’m very proud of the chest and to be working on this conservation project,” Yamashita said. “I’m amazed at the techniques that were used in making this and hope that one day it can be taken back to Japan for an exhibition.”

As is customary for a piece of export lacquerware, the chest was made in a hybrid style that combined Western forms — in this case a large European-style chest — with techniques and decoration derived from the traditions of Japan, China and Korea.

Gold and silver powder was sprinkled on to the chest to depict scenes from “The Tale of Genji,” the legendary novel based on Japanese court life written around 1000.

The chest is similar to other objects made in the workshop of Koami Nagashige, who was a leading lacquerer in Kyoto.

“This chest is one of the finest examples of Japanese export lacquer,” Rivers said. “There was a relatively brief period when objects of this quality were made and afterward the quality deteriorated. That is why it is so valuable. Export lacquer is not particularly well understood in Japan and hopefully our project will lead to more research.”

Given the chest’s hybrid nature, perhaps it is fitting the project aims to use a combination of Japanese and Western conservation techniques — two methods that are generally quite different.

Rivers said the Western approach is not to alter the creator’s original work and to use materials which can be reversed in the future.

By contrast, for the Japanese, cultural continuity is paramount. Therefore, they would try to conserve the item by using original materials, which may not be reversible at a later date.

Rivers said the Japanese approach would be to reapply urushi lacquer — which is irreversible — whereas Westerners would tend to use a synthetic resin, which is.

Likewise, Japanese would use animal glue to stick down the foil because that is how it was done centuries ago. However, in this case the decision has been made to use a modern-day adhesive, more of a Western approach.

Funding for the project has come from the Toshiba International Foundation, the Getty Foundation and the Victoria and Albert Museum. Additional support has been provided by the Japan Foundation.

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