Treasure: Chinese box likely from 20th century

Khristi Zimmeth

Organizing the basement or attic sometimes pays off in unexpected ways. Such was the case for Val Kushman.

“While cleaning out my basement recently, I came across a “treasure” I’ve had for years,” she wrote recently, requesting an appraisal. “After some hunting on the internet, I learned it’s called a Chinese ‘sweetmeat box.’ I believe it is painted enamel on metal. It’s a hexagon with a domed lid and seven removable trays inside. Each small tray has a different picture painted on it. The entire piece is about 10” across and 1 11/2” high. It stands on six little feet. It’s in very good condition and has only one small chip on the inside of the lid. There are no markings anywhere on the piece.

“Trying to learn more about it on the internet, I didn’t find many boxes that looked like mine. There were other sweetmeat boxes, but many were made of wood or without lids, etc. I did find an octagonal box, however, that was very similar (although larger in size). It was enameled metal with a dragon pattern on it. It had a lid and nine removable trays inside, and was from the Qing Dynasty in the 19th century. It was sold in an auction lot and valued at $12-000-$15-000! Ha!!

“I can hardly imagine my treasure is worth anywhere close to that, but I think it would be fun to know something more about it. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where or when I got it! There are two possibilities. My mom inherited some “treasures” from a cousin who lived in Youngstown, Ohio, and this may be one of those things. Or, I picked it up at a yard sale or a rummage sale somewhere and paid only a few dollars for it. Either way, I hope you can help me figure out if it’s trash or a treasure!”

Appraiser Alex Diebel of DuMouchelles took a look for her recently, hoping to give her more information as well as a few answers.

Diebel praised the piece, its hand-painted scenes on enamel and its overall good condition. “It’s very pretty and very well preserved,” she told her. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t have any markings, which makes it harder to evaluate and pin down, definitively.” The lack of markings also made it harder to tell where in China it had been made. “It’s definitely Chinese, but I couldn’t tell you which region,” Diebel told her.

Diebel guessed that the scene may depict an emperor of high stature, a common subject at the time. She believed that it dated to the early 20th century, not as old as the 19th-century piece that Kushman had found online.

“I wish I could tell you that yours was that old and would sell for that much,” she told Kushman, estimated that it would bring $300-$500 at auction if she were to sell. “Yours is a more common piece than I think the online one would have been,” she added. The design motif and medallion markings is one she says the auction house sees frequently.

Kushman said she has a daughter-in-law of Taiwanese heritage that she may eventually pass it on to. “For now, it’s going back on the coffee table,” she told the appraiser.

Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.

About this item

Item: Chinese enamel container

Owner: Val Kushman

Appraised by: Alex Diebel, DuMouchelles

Estimated value: $300-$500