How do I open this antique lacquered tea chest?
January 16, 2016 11:09 PM   Subscribe

My grandfather purchased this gold-and-black lacquered box decades ago while doing business in east Asia, and now that he's passed away we realize none of us know how to open it. There's a key in the lock but it doesn't seem to unlock the box. Is this possibly a trick box that we have to open some other way? Is there a way to try and pick the lock if it's broken?

We're not 100% certain what kind of box this is - various folks the family has spoken to or internet searches have led to 'tea chest' or 'medicine chest', but it's basically a black laquered box. It has a design of deer on it, and is from Asia somewhere... I'd guess Japan from the style, but there are a lot of other possibilities. Link to the photo. I'm not great at estimating sizes, but maybe 1' by 1' by 1.5' wide?

The key fits loosely in the lock and turns; it encounters some temporary resistance inside the lock, but the top does not open. Someone managed to open it at the estate sale apparently, but the sale manager didn't think anything unusual of it until talking to the family later, so we don't know if they did anything special.

A few people (family members and various antique collectors) have speculated there may be a secret or a trick to open the box. One of those antique collectors is where the 'medicine chest' suggestion came from. The other possibility is that the lock is just broken - maybe there's some way to wiggle it open. We'd like to avoid doing any real damage to the box.

Any suggestions? Have you heard of any sort of 'trick' to opening boxes like this that we might try, or any info on how the lock is likely constructed that I could use to try and pick it? Or, can you help identify a possible origin I could use as a starting point?
posted by Lady Li to Media & Arts (9 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Try gently shimmying and pulling the top of the box when you click the key into place can sometimes help with old chests. My grandpa's old train case had a functioning lock, as in the key mechanism itself worked fine, but the latch holding the lid shut was sticky and persnickety. If someone had managed to open it before, it's probably a broken/stuck internal mechanism. If brute forcing it isn't working, take it to a locksmith.

If after taking it to a locksmith it is confirmed to be a puzzle box, then have fun with whatever ancient curse/map to eldorado/ dragon's eggs you find inside!
posted by InkDrinker at 11:21 PM on January 16, 2016

Agreed, slip a thin knife blade beneath the cover and twist to provide a bit of pressure as you turn the key.

Step 2: Hammer.

Does it seem like anything is in the chest?
posted by LarryC at 12:40 AM on January 17, 2016

If I were going to pry that open, I would pick up a cheap, 3" wide PLASTIC putty knife at the hardware store, less likely to do damage than a metal knife blade...
posted by HuronBob at 4:20 AM on January 17, 2016 [5 favorites]

Best answer: Though I would probably try myself with plastic (not metal) putty knives, spudgers or other gentle opening tools, I am also an idiot.

The right thing to do is to take it to an old watch-repair shop or a very talented locksmith.... like, not the guy who shows up in a van when you lose your keys, but a real one.
posted by rokusan at 5:47 AM on January 17, 2016

Best answer: A few possibilities for the puzzle-minded:*
(*if not puzzle-minded, bring it to an upscale locksmith, perhaps a watchmaker, a good antiques dealer or the conservator of a not too basic museum. If you think you're puzzle-minded and suddenly you feel your patience wearing out, walk away...).

1) The lid might slide sideways, not flip open (unless there are hinges at the back, of course). Try sliding in every direction while also operating the lock.
2) If it's a usual lock with a hook-shaped thingy that moves sideways when the key is operated, you should be able, assisted by a strong light, to see into the gap between lid and box while operating the key and assess whether the lock is shot or not.
3) If something does move in there, it may simply be that, because of the box having shrunk a little over time, the lock-flip-hook-thingy doesn't move far enough, and the hook doesn't disengage properly. In that case, a very thin hard something, like an old credit card, or a very thin blade might be inserted into the gap, and a gentle sideways push might persuade the lock to disengage.
posted by Namlit at 8:25 AM on January 17, 2016 [3 favorites]

I was coming in to suggest sliding also. A lot of puzzle boxes open that way.
posted by MexicanYenta at 10:55 AM on January 17, 2016

Best answer: See if gravity helps shift the internal mechanism, and turn the box upside-down and try to unlock it (lid on the table, wiggling the key, opening the box by lifting up the base). If that doesn't work, then try switching to either side, or putting the box on its back, as you work the key in the lock.
posted by Iris Gambol at 11:20 AM on January 17, 2016

Do you know someone from whom you can borrow a USB endoscope or borescope? A 7mm hole somewhere inconspicuous would let you see the contents, and perhaps provide some clues as to how to open it.
posted by sourcequench at 6:28 PM on January 17, 2016

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone! The suggestions to use a spudger of some sort, gravity, and a bright light make a ton of sense, and for some reason hadn't occurred to me, so I've marked those as best answer together with the one that mentions the possible hook-shaped mechanism. I'll definitely give these suggestions a try. The box does have hinges and seems to be empty, so we're not really worried about contents so much as about just figuring out this puzzle. There not a ton of monetary value to the box, unfortunately, so we'd rather have a go at it ourselves first than bring in a locksmith right away. But that's definitely an option for later.
posted by Lady Li at 1:31 PM on January 20, 2016

« Older Adult dygraphia diagnosis - how to get help?   |   Am I hallucinating? Spiders when I wake up in the... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.