'Huanghuali wood frenzy' continues: a 17th-century incense stand sets record at US$9.1m

In the wake of pandemic, Ming (1368-1644) furniture made of huanghuali wood has been highly-prized and coveted among collectors, where many sparked enthusiastic bidding to sold far beyond estimates at auctions.

This season, Christie's Hong Kong presented a sale dedicated to the huanghuali furniture collection of Piper Tseng. Of strong provenance and extraordinary quality, all the 28 lots were sold, achieving a white-glove result with a staggering sale total of HK$227.5 million (around US$29.1 million) against its pre-sale estimate of HK$42 million. 

The crowning lot of the sale was a circular incense stand from 17th century. Carrying an estimate HK$6 million, it hammered for a whopping HK$59.5 million, selling for HK$71.3 million (around US$9.1 million) with fees to become the most expensive incense stand in auction history. 

Piper Tseng has a discerning taste for 17th-century huanghuali furniture

Inspired by a longing for the Ming literati life and the aesthetic preferences manifested by the works of art from that literati class, Piper Tseng embarked on her collecting journey in the 1990s, with a focus on 17th-century huanghuali furniture. 

Her first set of furniture, a pair of stools, was acquired from Peter Lai, a prominent art dealer in Chinese hardwood furniture. Since then, Tseng continued to source high-quality treasures from some of the world’s most esteemed furniture experts, including Grace Wu Bruce, Charles Wong, and Nicholas Grindley. 

Tseng’s discerning taste, coupled with her passion for Chinese classical furniture, has resulted in this huanghuali collection, distinguished by rare forms and extensive provenance history.

Of finest and rarest quality, highlights from the Tseng Collection have been exhibited at important museums around the world in the last 20 years, including the National Museum of History in Taipei; the Crow Museum of Asian Art in Dallas, Texas; and the Los Angeles County Museum.

Lot 2806 | A huanghuali circula incense stand, xiangji (Auction record for an incense stand)
17th century
Height: 97 cm; Diameter: 41 cm

  • Peter Lai Antiques, Hong Kong, 1989
  • The Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, Renaissance, California
  • Christie’s New York, Important Chinese Furniture. Formerly the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture Collection, 19 September 1996, lot 48
  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$59,500,000
Sold: HK$71,327,500 (around US$9.1 million)

Opening on a bid of HK$4.8 million, the lot was actively pursued by online, telephone, and floor bidders. After reaching the HK$10 million benchmark, a telephone bidder placed an ambitious bid of HK$20 million — but the bidding saw no signs of slowing down.

When it came to HK$30 million, only two telephone bidders were left in the battlefield, one represented by Chi-Fan Tsang, Head of the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department; another by Felix Pei, Senior Specialist in the Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art Department.

In the end, the lot was hammered for HK$59.5 million after 37 bids, a victorious bid placed by Chi-Fan Tsang's client with paddle number 8009. After fees, the lot sold for HK$71.3 million (around US$9.1 million), setting the auction record for an incense stand.

Chi-Fan Tsang won the lot for her client with paddle number 8009

The charm of Ming 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.

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 smallest and southernmost province in China. 

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

The lot hammered for a record-setting HK$59.5 million

The present incense stand exhibits a fusion of an early traditional high-waisted style with the aesthetics of elegance and refinement from the late Ming and early Qing periods. The art of line and space is apparent in the ‘dragonfly legs’ and arched aprons, which frame elongated spatial openings resembling lotus petals.

This incense stand also has several unique characteristics. Firstly, the top and base are both fashioned from solid material—the solid mass at top and bottom providing a striking contrast to the light and airy space in between.

Secondly, the design retains archaic elements of high-waist, skirt-style apron and scrolled foot, but the original expressive styles of these elements have all been subdued with streamlining and appear only as subtle decorative enhancements to the overall elegant form.

Since its appearance in publications and exhibitions, this round huanghuali incense stand has become an iconic work and has been used as model for countless reproductions.

Lot 2808 | A large huanghuali recessed trestle-leg table, qiaotou'an
17th century
83.5 x 274.5 x 51.8 cm

  • Ever Arts, Hong Kong, 1995

Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$28,000,000
Sold: HK$34,050,000 (around US$4.4 million)


Taking the precious incense stand home, the telephone bidder with paddle number 8009 won this lot as well for HK$34.1 million (around US$4.4 million). 

A recessed-leg table is known as qiaotouan in Chinese, characterized by a rectangular top terminating in everted flanges on the shorter ends. In households of the late Ming and Qing dynasties, tables as such with impressive proportions demonstrated the high status and wealth of their owners. It was used for placing objects such as fantastic rocks, seasonal flowers, or miniature tray-landscapes.

The present example is however particularly special for delicately carved panels between the legs, and the attractive grain pattern of the huanghuali boards set into the top frame.

Lot 2810 | A huanghuali rectangular incense stand with serpentine panel and drawer, xiangji
17th century
74 x 41 x 38 cm

  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1995

Estimate: HK$3,500,000 - 5,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$20,000,000
Sold: HK$24,450,000 (around US$3.1 million)

One of the rarest types of Ming furniture, incense stands were made of square, rectangular, octagonal or various lobed shapes as well as in the round. Their function was for displaying a rock sculpture, fragrant miniature plant, flower vase or an incense burner. As seen on woodblock illustrations to Ming books, they were also seen being placed outdoors for worship.

The high waist and the graceful undulations of the cusped apron on the present stand are both distinctive features that have strong links to Buddhism: high waisted pedestal stands were commonly placed in front of Buddhist images, while the arched outlines formed by the apron resemble that of the openings of Buddhist caves and pagodas. 

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 2814 | A pair of inlaid huanghuali 'southern official's hat' armchairs, nanguanmaoyi
Ming dynasty, 16th - 17th century
126 x 61 x 45 cm

  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1995

Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$14,000,000
Sold: HK$17,250,000

Lot 2811 | A large stone-inset huanghuali yokeback armchair, sichutou guanmaoyi
Ming dynasty, 16th - 17th century
115 x 67.4 x 54.5 cm

  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1996

Estimate: HK$2,400,000 - 3,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$9,000,000
Sold: HK$11,250,000

Lot 2805 | A huanghuali towel rack and washbasin, mianpenjia
Ming dynasty, 16th - 17th century
178 x 55 x 48 cm

  • China Art, Hong Kong
  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1993
  • The Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, Renaissance, California
  • Christie’s New York, Important Chinese Furniture. Formerly the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture Collection, 19 September 1996, lot 101
  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong

Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$7,500,000
Sold: HK$9,450,000

Lot 2804 | A three-legged huanghuali lampstand, sanzudengtai
Ming dynasty, early 17th century
Height: 162 cm

  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1989
  • The Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, Renaissance, California
  • Christie’s New York, Important Chinese Furniture, Formerly the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture Collection, 19 September 1996, lot 61
  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong

Estimate: HK$1,500,000 - 2,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$6,800,000
Sold: HK$8,568,000


Lot 2815 | A huanghuali luohan bed, luohanchuang
Ming dynasty, 16th - 17th century
78 x 200 x 96.5 cm

  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1998

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 5,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$5,500,000
Sold: HK$6,930,000

Lot 2818 | A huanghuali six-post canopy bed, jiazichuang
17th century
214.5 x 128 x 214 cm

  • Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1995

Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 5,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,800,000
Sold: HK$6,048,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie's Hong Kong
Sale: Rich Golden Hues and Graceful Forms - Classical Chinese Furniture From The Tseng Collection
Date: 29 November 2022
Number of Lots: 28
Sold: 28
Sale Rate: 100%
Sale Total: HK$227,468,000 (around US$29.1 million)