Chinese carved ivory box

Made in China, Asia, 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 Hitler’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 i...


A circular ivory lidded box finely carved with an overall design of dragons chasing the flaming pearl. The centre of the lid features a carved ivory circle that can be removed, leaving an opening in the lid while still affixed to the box, possibly allowing the box to be used for storing something. The design is carved into the ivory to a depth of 3mm.


83 mm


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.


Gift of Mr Eisig Starer, 2007
16 April, 2007

Cite this Object

Chinese carved ivory box 2017, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, accessed 22 November 2017, <>
{{cite web |url= |title=Chinese carved ivory box |author=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences |access-date=22 November 2017 |publisher=Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, Australia}}
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