Huanghuali armchair and wine table sell for US$2m each to lead Bonhams' Asia Week New York

Following the remarkable sold-out J. J. Lally sale, Bonhams presented yet another impressive single-owner collection auction, The Mary and Cheney Cowles Collection of Classical Chinese Furniture, which saw robust interest for huanghuali furniture. 

Of 20 lots on offer, only one failed to find new buyer, yielding a strong sell-through rate of 95% and a sale total of nearly US$7.3 million. The most valuable lots were an official's hat armchair with rare auspicious motifs, and a recessed-leg wine table, both selling for US$1.98 million with fees – the latter against a low estimate of a mere US$80,000.

The couple are avid collectors of Asian art, a passion they have pursued for over 40 years. From 1975 to 2016, Cheney Cowles ran the Crane Gallery in Seattle, showcasing a diverse arrange of from East & Southeast Asia. Classical Chinese furniture aside, their collection Japanese art are equally famous, where part of them were gifted to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art, and the Portland Art Museum.

Lot 82 | A huanghuali recessed-leg wine table, jiuzhuo
Ming dynasty, late-16th/early-17th century
79.8 x 96.8 x 59.8 cm

  • Nicholas Grindley, London, 1 March 1988

Estimate: US$80,000 - 120,000
Hammer Price: US$1,600,000
Sold: US$1,980,375

The charm of Ming (1368 - 1644) furniture lies in its elegant lines and carved details. During mid-Ming dynasty, China opened its borders and lifted the previously implemented import bans. A great variety of luxury goods had since been introduced from other countries into China. Among them was the precious, now-extinct huanghuali, or yellow flowering pear wood. 

Huanghuali is a type of rosewood known for the attractive grain, the rich hues that vary from reddish-brown to honey tones, as well as the natural, sweet scent. They are among other rare tropical hardwoods found in old-growth forests, predominantly on Hainan Island, the southernmost province in China which is known as "Hawaii of China". 

Considered to be the king of hardwoods, huanghuali was favoured by Ming and Qing (1644 - 1911) Emperors and furniture made of it was exclusive to imperial families and elite classes.

The elegant proportions of the present table, combined with the luxurious use of huanghuali, would have greatly appealed to the scholar collector. As depicted in woodblock prints, wine tables as such were heavily used in daily activities, such as for writing, displaying objects, and dining for one or two individuals.

The present table's overall simple and graceful form is flattered by the scalloped-edge beaded aprons and leaf-shaped spandrels that double-mitered and tenoned to elegant supports; while the feet is crafted in an upturned cloud-scroll shape.  

It was previously owned by Nicholas Grindley, a respected dealer who made a name for himself in the field of classical Chinese furniture. One famous item that was dealt by him was the huanghuali folding chair from collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung – the headline lot which sold for a staggering US$15.8 million at Sotheby's Hong Kong last year to become the most expensive Chinese chair, as well as the second most expensive Chinese classical furniture ever sold.

Lot 81 | A huanghuali 'wannian taiping' yokeback armchair, guanmaoyi
Ming dynasty, 16th/17th century
Height: 116.2 cm

  • Lai Loy through Peter Lai Antiques, 10 May 1990

Estimate: US$250,000 - 400,000
Hammer Price: US$1,600,000
Sold: US$1,980,375

Guanmaoyi, or official's hat armchair, acquired its fame due to its resemblance to the government official headgear. In Chinese culture, it has been regarded as a symbol of elite status and power. Official's hat armchair can be characterized by the four protruding heads: two found in the backrest chair and a pair at the front with the left and right armrests.

These types of chairs are mostly arranged in pairs, which reflects to the principle of symmetry in Chinese interior design. In the Ming and Qing prints, the official's hat armchairs were mostly placed on the side of the dining table – in front of the desk in the study room, or in the reception room for guests to use.

In the current lot, the center panel is flanked by two intricate lattice work panels forming the symbol wan, a subtle homophone for 'ten thousand' and a Buddhist symbol for peace, prosperity, and harmony, and a lower panel lattice centered on the two characters meaning great peace. This combination has a powerful message 'May there be peace for ten-thousand years', indicating that the recipient was a person of great stature.

Before selling to the present owner in 1990, it once belonged to the collection of Lai Loy, a prominent, well-respected Hong Kong art dealer in Chinese hardwood furniture.


Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 98 | A huanghuali and nanmu 'fu' character yokeback armchair, guanmaoyi
Ming dynasty, 16th/17th century
Height: 116.2 cm

  • Nicholas Grindley, circular white label on the reverse, 10 May 1998

Estimate: US$350,000 - 500,000
Hammer Price: US$700,000
Sold: US$882,375

Lot 88 | A huanghuali and huamu bamboo-style horseshoe back armchair, quanyi
17th/18th century
Height: 96.6 cm

  • Robert Moore, Los Angeles, 10 May 1990

Estimate: US$250,000 - 350,000
Hammer Price: US$600,000
Sold: US$756,375

Lot 92 | A zitan corner-leg table, tiaozhuo
Qing dynasty, 18th century
83.8 x 105.7 x 35.2 cm

  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 10 May 1990

Estimate: US$60,000 - 90,000
Hammer Price: US$530,000
Sold: US$668,175

Lot 84 | A huanghuali recessed-leg table, jiatousun pingtou'an
17th/18th century

  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1 March 1990

Estimate: US$100,000 - 150,000
Hammer Price: US$200,000
Sold: US$252,375

Auction Details:

Auction House: Bonhams New York
Sale: The Mary and Cheney Cowles Collection of Classical Chinese Furniture
Date: 20 March 2023
Number of Lots: 20
Sold: 19
Unsold: 1
Sale Rate: 95%
Sale Total: US$7,285,807