Best of 2022 | A US$15.8m ancient 'camping' chair becomes the most expensive Chinese chair

After more than two years of pandemic lull, the auction industry is bouncing back from the crisis to pre-pandemic levels – if not better. In fact, 2022 has been a stellar auction year where numerous records were set. As we ring in the new year, let's look back on the "best of 2022" in the auction world.

In October, Sotheby's Hong Kong dedicated an evening sale to the personal collection of late Sir Joseph Hotung, which saw many Chinese works of art garner heavy interest and eager biddings. 

Among the star lots, the show-stopper was a huanghuali folding horseshoe back armchair from late Ming dynasty (1368-1644). With a low estimate of HK$10 million, it was hammered down at HK$106 million after a 20-minute showdown and sold for a staggering HK$124 million (around US$15.8 million) with buyer's premium, setting an auction record for a Chinese chair and becoming the second most valuable piece of Chinese classical furniture sold at auction.

Testament to Sir Joseph’s exceptional taste, 475 lots from his collection – presented over the course of four live sales and an online sale across Hong Kong and London – eventually sold to bring a total of US$119.2 million, more than doubling pre-sale expectations. 

In 2017, the British Museum's Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia officially re-opened, and Queen Elizabeth II was accompanied with Sir Joseph Hotung 

Huanghuali Folding Horseshoe Back Armchair, Jiaoyi | Auction record for a Chinese chair; The second most valuable piece of Chinese classical furniture sold at auction
Created during late Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
71.2 x 67.2 x 102.8 cm

  • La Compagnie de la Chine et des Indes, Paris, 10th September 1968
  • Collection of Arthur M. Sackler, 1968-96
  • Collection of Else Sackler, 1996-2001
  • Collection of Dr Elizabeth A. Sackler, 2001
  • Christie's New York, 20th September 2001, Lot 254 and cover
  • Nicholas Grindley, London, 2001

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Date: 9 October 2022
Estimate: HK$10,000,000 – 15,000,000
Sold: HK$124,609,000 (around US$15.8 million)

As soon as auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd opened the proceedings of the lot at HK$8 million, a fierce bidding war was sparked between at least eight buyers. The price climbed steadily in HK$1 - 3 million increments and saw no signs of slowing down.

When the price reached HK$85 million after 45 bids, the battle came down to a bidder in the saleroom versus the client represented by Jesica Lee, Director Asia, Private Client Group at Sotheby's. The intense face-off eventually came to a close with the floor bidder placing a victorious bid of HK$106 million. The room was filled with a round of applause before moving on to the next lot.

According to sources, the buyer – a gentleman in a white shirt with paddle number 8828 – was bidding on behalf of a collector in Mainland China. 

The huanhhuali folding horseshoe-back armchairs hammered at HK$106 million

The chair is won by the gentleman on the right

After fees, the lot sold for a whopping HK$124 million (around US$15.8 million) to set the auction record for a Chinese chair – also the second most expensive Chinese classical furniture ever sold.

The reshuffled top three auction record for Chinese classical furniture are as follows:

  1. Massive huanghuali plank-top tedestal table, Jiajian, 453 x 56 x 93 cm | Beijing Poly International Auction, December 2021, Sold: RMB 115 million (around US$18 million)
  2. Huanghuali Folding Horseshoe Back Armchair, Jiaoyi, 71.2 x 67.2 x 102.8 cm | Sotheby’s Hong Kong, October 2021, Sold: HK$124 million (around US$15 million)
  3. A pair of huanghuali phoenix motif cabinets | Beijing Poly International Auction, December 2017, Sold: RMB 98 million (around US$13.9 million)

Massive huanghuali plank-top tedestal table, sold: RMB 115 million (around US$18 million)

A pair of huanghuali phoenix motif cabinets, sold: RMB 98 million

Folding horseshoe-back armchairs, perhaps the most highly-sought after of all items of Ming (1368-1644) furniture, are among the most striking and most highly celebrated designs created by Chinese carpenters. Conceived to be folded for easy transport, these portable chairs could said to be an ancient ‘camping chair’.

The horseshoe-back design, with its sweeping U-shaped crest rail, is easily adapted to collapsing. When folded, the front seat rail fits snugly within the curved supports of the arms – a complex construction more prone to damage than other pieces of furniture. Not many of them, therefore, could withstand the test of time, making these armchairs such rare finds in the market nowadays.

Less than thirty horseshoe-back folding chairs are known to exist from the Ming dynasty, largely preserved in prominent museums; and only a few remain in private hands, including the present one.

Illustration from Ming Dynasty

In ancient Chinese history, folding horseshoe-back jiaoyi - or armchairs, were used by the imperial family and individuals from the upper-class. The Chinese phrase ‘the first taking the jiaoyi’, which is still in use, implies the highest-ranking person of an assembly who sits in a prominent position.

The historical importance of jiaoyi can be evidenced by their frequent appearance in paintings and prints from the Song (960-1279) to the Qing (1644-1911) periods, where some of them show servants carrying these folding chairs on their backs as they walk through the countryside. It was widely used both in formal and informal settings, sometimes even on the battlefields.

The design reached its peak during the Ming dynasty, when carpenters were able to create the finest furniture from huanghuali, a type of highly-prized rosewood known for the attractive grain, the rich hues that vary from reddish-brown to honey tones, as well as the natural, sweet scent.

Born in mainland China in 1930, Joseph was Sir Robert Hotung Bosman’s grandson and Edward Hotung’s son. Together, the Hotung family in Hong Kong were influential businessmen and many descendants are still recognised today – most notably late Hong Kong-Macau casino billionaire, Stanley Ho.

Having received a secondary education in Shanghai and Tianjin, Sir Joseph later received a law degree from the University of London. He then worked as a securities analyst for the Marine Midland Bank in New York, went to Hong Kong and was primarily involved in the development of commercial properties. He became an influential leader in the city’s business and art industries, having served as director of HSBC and the first chairman of the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.

During the early 1970s, Sir Joseph’s love for art collecting was sparked. Due to a flight delay, he acquired a pair of perfectly matched Qing dynasty (1644-1911) white bowls from a gallery in San Francisco. Since this first purchase, his passion for art became a lifelong passion and he began to assemble treasures from different periods and places.  

Sir Joseph's extensive collection was displayed in the London household he personally curated and designed

Sir Joseph's extensive collection was displayed in the London household he personally curated and designed

Devoted to the arts and a generous philanthropist, he invested in various cultural institutions. In 1992, Sir Joseph funded the establishment of the British Museum’s The Joseph E. Hotung Gallery of Oriental Antiquities, and later donated a large collection of Chinese art. Then, in 1993, he was knighted by the Queen.

Alongside being a trustee of the British Museum from 1994 to 2004, he was also well-respected as a board member of distinguished American art museums, such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and Freer Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.

After its first refurbishment in 1992, the British Museum's Room 33 called Sir Joseph Hotung Gallery of China and South Asia was again revamped in 2017. It was officially re-opened and Queen Elizabeth II came to the inauguration ceremony in person. 

During the final stages of his life, Sir Joseph bequeathed different works of art – such as Chinese blue-and-white porcelains, jades and bronzes – to the British Museum. Collectively, these donations were one of its most generous donations ever received by the museum.