The classic Chinese furniture market

Excerpt from the November 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and Subscribe here.

This fall, two important collections of classical Chinese furniture will be auctioned. Christie’s offers “Rich Golden Hues and Graceful Forms – Classical Chinese Furniture from the Tseng Collection” in Hong Kong on November 29, while in December in London, Sotheby’s disperses the various collections of the late Joseph Hotung, including some rare pieces of furniture.

The past two years have seen exceptional prices for today’s most sought-after huanghuali coins from the late Ming and early Qing dynasties. – roughly, from the end of the 16th to the end of the 17th century – with a particularly competitive market in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. At Christie’s New York, however, in late September, during a sale of Chinese ceramics and other works of art, a very rare pair of 17th-century huanghuali drum stools jumped from their estimate of 120,000 to 180,000. $ to reach $1.5 million (with fees). – proof, suggests Cecilia Zi, Christie’s specialist in Hong Kong and London, that rarity is a primary criterion for collectors of these graceful pieces around the world.

Early in the reign of Emperor Longqing (1567-1572) in the late Ming period, China abandoned long-established import bans, allowing the arrival of abundant supplies of tropical hardwoods. These dense, durable and flexible woods have made it possible to create large, elegant and technically ambitious forms; dark zitan wood, particularly suited to elaborate carving, was reserved for the court, while paler, honey-brown huali wood – from the “blossoming pear tree”, also a member of the rosewood family – renowned for his fine marks, was more popular among literati and merchants, encouraging the evolution of forms and types of furniture to suit the more restrained tastes of literati. This classic style was carried on through pattern books in the early Qing period. Over time, the adjective “huang” was added to the name of the wood to reflect collectors’ enthusiasm for the rich yellow-brown patina imparted by age.

Chinese furniture from this period is the most sought after today. In June 2013, an imposing carved zitan cabinet, from the reign of Emperor Qianlong (r. 1736-1795) and part of the Imperial Collection, broke world Chinese furniture auction records at Poly Auction in China, reaching 93 million yuan (about 15 million dollars). In December 2021, a stately but relatively austere antique pedestal table (late Ming to early Qing) made from huanghuali broke the 100 million yuan (about $18 million) barrier, also at Poly Auction. Huali wood is now rare, its use strictly restricted, so the plank top itself is revered as a natural wonder as much as a cultural artifact.

The huanghuali market was started in the early 20th century by Western collectors – one of the most important early guides, Gustav Ecke’s Chinese household furniturewas first published in 1944. Two knowledgeable collectors at the time were Marquis Taliani de Marchio, Italian Ambassador to China between 1938 and 1946, and his wife, Archduchess Margaretha of Austria. A very rare set of four square-backed huanghuali folding chairs from their collection, used by the elite on military campaigns and for leisure, and dating from the late 16th/early 17th century, sold at Bonhams London in November 2017 for £5.3m, well beyond its estimate of £150,000-200,000.

A pair of drum stools (17th century), China. Christie’s New York, $1.5 million

The market took off in the West in the early 1980s when China opened up and a number of dealers – including Nicholas Grindley, Marcus Flacks, Curtis Evarts, Grace Wu Bruce, Charles Wong and Peter Lai – took advantage from a flow of fine, rare examples of Chinese furniture in Hong Kong, allowing the constitution of important private and institutional collections. While Europeans generally preferred pieces that could be used in apartments and houses, American taste was, in Grindley’s words, “much more institutional”, in view of a possible bequest. A landmark September 1996 sale by Christie’s New York of more than 100 works from the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture in Renaissance, California, saw prices for some pieces soar as much as 10 times their estimates. A 2m-tall 17th-century floor screen of elaborately carved, pierced and openwork huanghuali and tielimu wood, with a slab of dali marble, sold for $1.1 million, then an auction record for furniture Chinese, at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, helping to establish his pre-eminence in the field.

It was in the late 1990s and early 2000s that Asian buyers began to become a dominant force; today, as London dealer Daniel Eskenazi notes, it is difficult for Western collectors to compete. He says that while in the early 20th century it was common to strip huanghuali pieces and re-varnish them, some repairs and wear marks are now considered acceptable for a rare piece, as part of its history. “Late Ming is what you want,” he adds. It has a 17th century table with an interesting grain, lots of interlocking joints and a floating panel top to allow for changes in humidity.

The current resurgence of interest in furniture from Chinese collectors began around 2013. “Since then,” according to Henry Howard-Sneyd, Sotheby’s President for Asian Art, Europe and the Americas, “it has been a hot topic “. A significant marker was the sale of the collection of prominent New York dealer and expert Robert Hatfield Ellsworth for five days at Christie’s New York in 2015. The most significant lot was an extremely rare and exceptionally sculpted set of four irons Ming dynasty huanghuali horse. -back chairs, which fetched $9.7 million, an auction record for huanghuali furniture and more than eight times the high estimate of $1.2 million. A rare, massive painting table from the same period sold for $3.5 million (estimate between $800,000 and $1.2 million).

Sotheby’s saw excellent prices in 2020 during a two-part sale in Hong Kong. A rare Ming Dynasty huanghuali long table with recessed legs fetched HK$60 million ($7.7 million), more than 10 times the highest estimate, while the highest lot of the second sale, a pair of 17th century Huanghuali square corner cases (wanligui), sold for more than HK$57.2 million ($7.4 million) – almost 10 times the highest estimate.

In the Joseph Hotung sale in London in December, Sotheby’s is offering a splendid six-pillar huanghuali four-poster bed, Ming dynasty, 17th century (estimate £500,000 – £800,000). Meanwhile, the headline lot of an earlier sale of Hotung’s pieces in Hong Kong in October was a very rare and ingenious huanghuali horseshoe folding chair by the late Ming, which sold for $124.6 million. HK with fee ($15.8 million), more than 10 times its low estimate and setting a world record for a Chinese chair. Another example, from Heveningham Hall in Suffolk, sold in May 2021 at Christie’s Hong Kong for $8.5m on an estimate of $1-1.5m. Cecilia Zi suggests that part of the appeal of this piece was that its provenance, in an area where documentation is very sparse, could date back to the early 20th century. In November, the top lot of Piper Tseng’s sale collection, created over 30 years, will be an extremely rare, late 17th-century five-foot circular huanghuali incense holder (xiangji), estimated between $770,000 and $1.3 million. “It’s probably the only known example like this,” Zi says. “We expect a lot of attention.”

Excerpt from the November 2022 issue of Apollo. Preview and Subscribe here.

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