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Ask MOA: What Is This Box?

Ask MOA: What Is It? is your opportunity to ask MOA Curators and Collections staff about an artwork or other mystery object at home that you’ve always wondered about. We select certain inquiries and objects to feature online.

This featured Ask MOA case answers an inquiry about a carved wooden box.

Question from inquirer:

“This chip-carved box (cedar, possibly) was acquired at a flea market in Vancouver. It is about 14 x 7 x 3″. It has a nice repair: one of the hinges has been moved over to more solid wood. The top is arched, and the inside shows saw marks. Are the carved motifs typical of a Northwest Coast argillite box, or are they more like folk art? I would love to know more about it. Thank you.”

Answer from Karen Duffek + Carol Mayer:

Thanks for your query about the carved box. The connection you suggest between its carved motifs and Haida argillite carvings was very astute. We saw the same connection in the circular designs, but the box itself looked European to us, and is not typical of Haida woodworking.

We don’t have anything like this box in MOA’s collection, but some online sleuthing brought Victorian trinket boxes to light. Then we did some research into the argillite plates and platters carved by Haida artists for sale between the 1830s and around 1880, and the connection became clear. Both Haida argillite carvers and Victorian makers of trinket boxes and furniture were inspired by the same sunburst patterns—specifically Late Georgian furniture and tableware. Early Canadian pressed glass also used the popular sunburst pattern.

In the book The Magic Leaves: A History of Haida Argillite Carving (by Peter L. Macnair and Alan L. Hoover, Royal BC Museum, 1984), ethnologist Peter Macnair writes that Haida argillite plates and platters inspired by European china and glassware first appeared in the late 1830s, featuring circular geometric elements with floral components. Such designs had no resemblance to traditional Haida feast bowls, but were part of the totally new creative work that Haida artists felt free to invent for the new market of European and American traders and travellers. Some researchers say that paddle wheels and other introduced circular forms may also have been influential. The almost exact likeness between the finest Haida argillite plates and decorated European furniture like this (made in 1890, but following earlier models)—and, in a simplified form, your box—is remarkable:

Victorian carved mahogany secretary desk, circa 1890. Photo by The Harp Gallery.

We would conclude, therefore, that your box is probably European made, but was inspired by the same designs as were argillite plates like these two in MOA’s collection:

Argillite plate (Haida). MOA Collection A2600. Maker unknown. Photo: Kyla Bailey. 
Argillite plate (Haida). MOA Collection A2577. Maker unknown. Photo: Kyla Bailey.

Response from inquirer:

It was nice to get an appraisal of my trinket box from you. What a treat to tap into the expertise and resources of MOA. Thank you.