A 17th-Century Chinese Imperial "Huanghuali" Camping Chair Fetched US$8.5m at Hong Kong Sale to Become New Auction Record

The “Classical Chinese Furniture from Heveningham Hall” sale presented by Christie’s brought a nice finale to the house’s marquee auction week in Hong Kong. It was led by a HK$66m (US$8.5m) wooden chair that dates back to the 17th-century. It is also now a new auction record for a huanghuali folding armchair. 

As early as the Song dynasty (960-1279), collapsible chairs had accompanied Chinese emperors on their travels. The modern-day equivalent of a camping chair was used by the emperors as portable thrones during both diplomatic visits and leisurely outings.

Lot 2809 | Huanghuali folding horseshoe-back armchair, jiaoyi

Late Ming to early Qing dynasty, 17th century
Dimensions: 106.6 x 73.7 x 62.2 cm
Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • Scandinavian collection, circa 1910
  • Christie's New York, March 21, 2002, lot 24 (Price realized: US$248,000)
  • The Heveningham Hall Collection

Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer price: HK$55,000,000
Price realized: HK$65,975,000


In ancient Chinese history, folding horseshoe-back jiaoyi - or armchairs, were used by the imperial family and individuals from the upper-class. 

Chinese paintings that date back to the 12th century also show servants carrying these folding chairs on their backs as they walk through the countryside. The furniture was widely used both in formal and informal settings, sometimes even on the battlefields. Jiaoyi was also reserved for the most important person in the room, as a symbol of status and rank, hence the Chinese saying of “di yi ba jiaoyi,” or “the first folding chair,” which conveys the importance of this type of chair, as the most honored seat. 

The U-shaped crest rail and out-swept hooks of of the horseshoe-back design make the armchair portable 


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, for the ease of transport and compact storage. However, the complex construction and fragile design also means that these chairs are subject to greater wear and are more susceptible to damage, making them such rare finds in the market nowadays. 

The majority of the surviving examples dating back to the 17th century are in the collections of prominent museums, and only a few remain in private hands, including the present one, also the cover lot, which carried an estimate of HK$8m to HK$12m (US$1m to US$1.6m).

As soon as the auctioneer opened the proceeding at HK$7m, it sparked interest from online and phone bidders represented by at least six specialists in the Hong Kong saleroom. The price soared to HK$20m, and from here onwards, it was between Chi Fan Tsang (Head of Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department) and Julia Hu (General Manager China). After a 10-minute bidding battle, the auctioneer finally brought down the gavel at HK$55m (US$7.1m), nearly seven times the presale estimate and the lot was sold to Tsang’s client, with the paddle number 8067. 

The present huanghuali wooden armchair (right) was sold for a record-breaking HK$66m (US$8.5m) with premium


The final price with premium was HK$66m (US$8.5m), an almost 34 times increase in value compared to when the lot last went under the hammer at Christie’s New York in 2002, when it fetched US$248,000. It is also now the auction record for an armchair. 

As with the rest of the lots offered in the sale, the headline-grabbing huanghuali armchair was housed in Heveningham Hall, one of the most beautiful country houses in Suffolk, England, where the first house on the site was built for late English politician Sir William Heveningham in 1658.

All 26 lots offered in the sale were housed in Heveningham Hall, England 

Closer looks at the present lot


The center of the armchair features a qilin motif carved in relief, to imitate three sections on a single-panel splat. The qilin is an imperial symbol for prosperity and good fortune. Back in Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, qilin badges were worn by dukes, marquises, earls, and sons-in-law of the emperors. 

A ruyi-form openwork cartouche is carved with a coiled dragon, and is flanked by narrow shaped flanges fitted with brass mounts. The arms are supported by elegant curved supports reinforced with brass bracing, which are also introduced to the legs, footrests, and the joints.

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 natual, sweet scent. They are among other rare tropical hardwoods found in old-growth forests, predominantly on Hainan Island, the smallest and southernmost province in China. 

The 26-lot sale achieved a sell-through rate of 73% and tallied HK$118.3m (US$15.3m), much of the sale’s success is attributed to some of the rarest huanghuali furniture amassed by the single-owner over the last two decades.

Lot 2804 | Huanghuali round-corner tapered cabinets and stand, yuanjiaogui

Late Ming dynasty, 17 century

  • Cabinet: 128.3 x 79.3 x 42.6 cm
  • Stand: 52 x 79.3 x 42.6 cm

Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • Christie's New York, September 21, 2000, lot 25 (Price realized: US$47,000)
  • The Heveningham Hall Collection

Estimate: HK$2,500,000 - 3,500,000
Hammer price: HK$5,500,000
Price estimate: HK$6,850,000


The distinctive figuration on the four broad, single panels of the present huanghuali cabinet indicates that they were cut from the same piece of timber, with a rich caramel tone. The cabinet is well-proportioned and constructed with a rounded, protruding top supported on slightly splayed corners posts of lobed-section.

An original, matching stand has also been retained, adding to the rarity of the exquisite set. Designed to raise and protect the cabinet from having direct contact with the damp floor, which may have been used exclusively in the southern part of China, with relatively high humidity. 

The bidding for the present lot began at HK$1.9m. After a total of 14 bids, it was hammered at HK$5.5m to a phone bidder represented by Julia Hu (General Manager China), with the paddle number 8055 and was sold for HK$6.85m with fees, to become the first runner-up of the sale. The price realized has soared 19 times over when the lot last changed hands at a New York auction 21 years ago, when it fetched US$47,000. 

Lot 2803 | Huanghuali waisted daybed, ta

Late Ming dynasty, 17th century
Dimensions: 47.5 x 197 x 105 cm
Provenance: (Organized by The Value)

  • Herr J. Plaut
  • Christie's, New York, September 18, 1997, lot 180
  • Property from a New York City Collection
  • Christie's New York, September 21, 2000, lot 24 (Price realized: US$143,500)
  • The Heveningham Hall Collection

Estimate: HK$2,500,000 - 4,000,000
Hammer price: HK$5,000,000
Price realized: HK$6,250,000


Daybeds, also known as ta in Chinese, served multiple purposes in ancient Chinese culture. During the day, they were used as a sitting platform, and at night, a bed. 

The more commonly seen box-style platform beds were replaced by the open-frame daybeds popularized during the Ming dynasty. The present example has a simple design, with restrained lines and no relief decoration, to demonstrate the beautifully grained wood.

Closer look at the hoof foot of the present huanghuali daybed 

Huanghuali waisted daybed (center)


The present lot last went under the hammer at Christie’s New York in 2000. This time in Asia, it was acquired by a bidder in the Hong Kong saleroom, with the paddle number 2383, for HK$6.25m (US$805,336) after fees, five times more than when it last changed hands for US$143,500. 

Other highlights from the sale:

Lot 2814 | Pair of imperial zitan square lanterns

Qianlong period (1736-1795)
Dimensions: 73.4 x 35.6 cm (each)

  • The Collection of Robert H. Ellsworth, New York, prior to 1978
  • The Collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth Part I, Christie's New York, March 17, 2015, lot 52
  • The Heveningham Hall Collection

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer price: HK$4,000,000
Price realized: HK$5,000,000

Lot 2815 | Huanghuali six-poster canopy bed, jiazichuang

Qing dynasty, 18th century
Dimensions: 231 x 225.5 x 156.1 cm

  • Chan Shing Kee, Hong Kong, April 2015
  • The Heveningham Hall Collection

Estimate: HK$5,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer price: HK$3,000,000
Price realized: HK$3,750,000

Lot 2802 | Huanghuali “four-corner’s exposed” official’s hat armchair, sichutouguanmaoyi

Late Ming dynasty, 17th century
Dimensions: 99.1 x 52.1 x 50.8 cm

  • Christie's New York, September 21, 2000, lot 13
  • The Heveningham Hall Collection

Estimate: HK$600,000 - 800,000
Hammer price: HK$3,000,000
Price realized: HK$3,750,000

Auction Summary:

Auction house: Christie’s Hong Kong
Sale: Classical Chinese Furniture from Heveningham Hall
Date: May 28, 2021
Lots offered: 26
Sold: 19
Unsold: 7
Sale rate: 73%
Sale total: HK$118,262,500 (US$15,311,836)