Container, carved ivory, maker unknown, China, 1870-1920
Eisig (Egon) Starer (1903-1980), born Winograd, Poland ran away from home to Vienna, Austria in 1919. He lived in Vienna and studied industrial chemistry. On HitlerĀ?s annexation of Austria, Egon and his wife Sabina fled Austria with visas to China, one of the few countries then accepting Jewish refugees. The Starers, settled in the Jewish community in Shanghai, opened a factory to manufacture soap and other household items.
During the Japanese occupation, Egon made a name for himself whilst incarcerated in the White Russian Jewish ghetto, in organising soup kitchens and other charitable works among the many destitute refugees.
In 1949, Egon Starer migrated to Australia and established Osta Chemicals.
The Japanese carved ivory figure and Chinese carved ivory box were collected during Eisig (Egon) StarerĀ?s residency in Shanghai. The provenance of the Chinese carved ivory box is of particular significance and reflects the Starer's migrant experience.
With its silky feel, unique lustre, warm colour, exotic association and suitability for detailed carving, ivory is the perfect medium for high quality decorative items. Ivory carvings were luxury objects produced for the wealthy and functioned as an indicator of wealth and status. Chinese ivory carvers were renowned for their skill and produced treasured pieces handed down through generations.
The import and export of ivory and ivory products is now regulated by the Australian Wildlife Protection Act of 1982, which is part of a worldwide movement to protect elephants, from whose tusks the ivory carvings were made. Internationally, the 1989 Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, known as CITES banned the trade of ivory effective from 18 January 1990. Owing to the increasing rarity of ivory and given the limitations of it as a tradeable commodity, the value of ivory products as collectable objects has increased. The Chinese carved ivory box is of fine quality and exemplify the technical skill involved in producing such complex carvings.
The art of ivory carving is 4000-5000 years old with the techniques and style involved in ivory carving remaining largely unchanged through many successive generations. Ivory is a costly and durable material with the shape, colour and texture of the material influencing the design.
Ivory is derived from the teeth or tusks of mammals. Tusks from the Asian and African elephants are the most popular for ivory carving. Ivory is also culled from walrus, narwhal, wild boar and rhinoceros.
Ivory is a medium that is easy to work with and is used to produce a variety of functional and ornamental items such as articles of personal and household use and the embellishment of furnishing and interior of buildings.
There is little documentary evidence or knowledge of the work of Chinese carvers in the late 19th - early 20th centuries. With rare exception, work was anonymous. Shops were next to each other in one street and were run by a guild.
In 1989, the Convention of Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) banned the trade of elephant-related products as the species is on the verge of extinction. Subsequently, the art of ivory carving is in decline due to an unavailability of material. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to attract young people to take up the craft of ivory carving as it is seen to produce little reward for maximum effort.
The decoration on the carved ivory box of the dragon is complex, representing one of the most famous mythical animals that has come to be closely associated with Chinese culture. The dragon is good-natured and benign. It is the symbol of natural male vigour and fertility. It also symbolises the Emperor, the son of Heaven, the fifth creature in the Chinese zodiac and as east, one of the four creatures of the world direction, symbolising sunrise and rain. The dragon is depicted with the following nine characteristics: head is like a camel, horns like a deer, eyes like a hare, ears like a bull, neck like an iguana, belly like a frog, scales like those of a carp's, paws like a tiger and claws like an eagle's. On each side of the dragon's mouth are whiskers.
The pearl is one of the eight jewels (precious objects) symbolising the most valuable treasure, wisdom and purity. The pearls carved in this ivory box are depicted as spheres spinning in a spiral out of reach of the pursuing dragons. The legend has the dragon seeking the pearl to take advantage of its great magical powers. The pearl will allow the dragon to ascend to heaven.
The carving was acquired by Eisig Starer in Shanghai in the 1940s, brought to Australia in 1947 and owned by his widow until her death in 1993 when it was acquired by the Museum according to the terms of his Will. Eisig Starer lived in Shanghai during World War II, having escaped Nazi persecution in Austria. As an industrial chemist he invented alternative formulae for household products difficult to obtain during the war years eg. soap, toothpaste and shoe polish. From time to time he bartered rather than sold the goods and according to his stepson, Serge Tauber, some of the ivories were acquired in this fashion. This carving would have been brought to Shanghai by Japanese residents of the city, which was occupied by them from 1937 until 1945. The Jewish refugees living in a 'Designated Area' between 1943 and 1945 were able to carry on their business outside this area on acquisition of a special pass issued by the Japanese.