A 17th-century Chinese folding chair to lead Christie's NY Asia Week with an estimate of US$2m

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

Among those pieces, particularly eye-catching are the extremely rare folding chairs. In 2021, one dated 17th century fetched HK$66 million (US$8.5 million) at Christie's Hong Kong, setting an auction record for a folding chair. The following year, another dated late Ming dynasty from the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung break that record at HK$124.6 million (US$16 million), also a record price for a Chinese chair.

Riding on the momentum, Christie's is presenting yet another huanghuali folding chair from 17th century as the star lot of this season's New York Asia Week, which is estimated between US$2 and 3 million.

Lot 1148 | A huanghuali folding chair
17th century
108.6 x 78.7 x 57.8 cm

  • Peter Lai Antiques, Hong Kong
  • Private collection, Japan, early 1990s
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 29-30 October 1994, lot 601
  • Private collection, North America

Estimate: US$2,000,000 - 3,000,000

With an estimate between US$2 and 3 million, the price of the present lot might be quite far away from the two record-breaking folding chair mentioned above. Yet, looking through the records, it seems that auction houses tend to be cautious about the pre-sale price tag of these huanghuali pieces.

  • Christie's Hong Kong, May 2021 | Huanghuali folding horseshoe-back armchair, 17th century | Estimate: HK$8 million (US$1.02 million), Sold: HK$66 million
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, October 2021 | Huanghuali folding horseshoe-back armchair, late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) from the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung | Estimate: HK$10 million (US$1.28 million), Sold: HK$124.6 million 

As suggested above, the folding chairs soared to between eight and twelve times their estimates to set auction records; and the present lot, with an estimate higher than the two, is bound to ignite another round of fierce biddings.

Huanghuali folding horseshoe-back armchair, 17th century | Sold: HK$65,975,000 (US$8.5 million), Christie's Hong Kong, 2021

Huanghuali folding horseshoe-back armchair, late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) from the collection of Sir Joseph Hotung | Sold: HK$124,609,000 (US$16 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 ancient imperial ‘camping chairs’ designated for travelling dignitaries. 

The horseshoe-back design, with its sweeping U-shaped crest rail, was a unique invention of China's furniture makers from around the early 12th century. A marriage of elegance and functionality, the fluid curve gives the chair a dynamic shape and graceful silhouette, while offering a sense of containment and ease by encircling the occupant's upper body. 

Such design on folding chairs, however, 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 and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, largely preserved in prominent museums; leaving only a few in private hands, including the present one.

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 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, or yellow flowering pear wood, 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.

The present folding chair, dated 17th century, is notable for its majestic proportions and the energetic rounded crestrail that terminates in bold, confident outswept hooks. In contrast to the more commonly seen five-part rails, the present one is constructed in three-parts, requiring longer lengths of the precious exotic wood, and arguably a more skilled woodworker to execute the precise curve in three sections. 

Endowed with a remarkable provenance, the piece was first owned by Peter Lai, a prominent, well-respected art dealer in Chinese hardwood furniture. It entered a Japanese private collection in early 1990s, before selling to the present North American collector at Christie's Hong Kong in 1994. 

Lot 1149 | A huanghuali daybed
17th century
48.6 x 191.8 x 99.4 cm

  • C. T. Loo, New York, 17 July 1959

Estimate: US$400,000 - 600,000

Daybeds, known as ta in Chinese, are among the oldest type of furniture made in China. Popular since the Han dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.), it served multiple purposes for high-ranking individuals in ancient Chinese culture – a sitting platform during the day, and at night, a bed. 

By the Ming period, platforms with four legs in various sizes had come into favour replacing earlier box-construction platforms. Relatively lightweight, these raised rectangular daybeds were also well-suited for scholar's studios, serving as a place for quiet relaxation and meditation. 

A classic example of huanghuali daybed from Ming period, the present lot features a mat seat above a high waist and straight, plain apron supported on sturdy legs of square sections terminating in hoof feet. 

Lot 1152 | A huanghuali sloping-stile cabinet
17th century
190.2 x 92.1 x 49.8 cm

  • Schoeni Fine Oriental Art, Hong Kong, 1990s
  • Christie's New York, 14-15 September 2017, lot 977
  • Private collection, America

Estimate: US$300,000 - 500,000

The round-corner tapered cabinet, or yuanjiaogui, is one of the most elegant and recognisable form of classical Chinese furniture. Its subtle sloping stiles and wood-hinged construction with the top hanging over the stiles, developed from principles and aesthetic ideals that were well-established in Chinese wood architecture.

Like pillars or columns, the side stiles gently taper to increase the illusion of height and lightness, while the panelled doors and sides, like walls within a room, can be easily removed to reveal the space within. The design appears to have originated from large chests with panelled doors that by the Song period were kept on tables.

Of the two types of round-corner tapered cabinets, those with square members, such as the present example, are rarer. The present cabinet is further distinguished by the elegant, deep ‘thumb-mold’ surrounded by raised beading at nearly every edge of the cabinet, including the doors themselves. Such nuanced carving softens the square members, while maintaining the overall appearance of stability and sturdiness.

The present lot last changed hands in 2017, when it sold for US$468,000 at Christie's New York to a private American collector. Six years later, it was offered for sale again at the same saleroom, carrying an estimate between US$300,000 and 500,0000.

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 1153 | A huanghuali daybed
17th century
47 x 192.4 x 63.3 cm

  • Everarts, Hong Kong
  • Nicholas Grindley, New York, November 1993

Estimate: US$300,000 - 500,000

Lot 1109 | A bronze ritual wine vessel, jue
Early Western Zhou dynasty, 11th-10th century BC
Height: 20.9 cm

  • Liu Tizhi (1879-1963) Collection
  • George Eumorfopoulos (1863-1939) Collection, England
  • The Eumorfopoulos Collections; Sotheby’s London, 28-31 May 1940, lot 477
  • Private noble collection, Portugal
  • Une collection européenne; Daguerre, Hôtel Drouot, 29 March 2013, lot 97

Estimate: US$250,000 - 350,000

Lot 1151 | A pair of huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs
18th century
99.1 x 66 x 59.7 cm

  • Acquired in New York, prior to 2008
  • Private collection, America

Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000

Lot 1150 | A pair of huanghuali low-back armchairs
17th-18th century
99.1 x 66 x 59.7 cm

  • Private collection, California

Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000

Lot 1123 | A large sandstone figure of Maitreya
Tang dynasty (AD 618-907)
Height: 118.1 cm

  • J. T. Tai & Co., Inc., New York
  • Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987) Collections
  • Arthur M. Sackler Collections, Columbia University
  • Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, 2001

Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000

Lot 1122 | A sandstone figure of a Bodhisattva
Northern Wei dynasty (AD 386-535)
Height: 77.5 cm

  • C. T. Loo & Co., Paris, c. 1928
  • J. T. Tai & Co., Inc., New York, 30 April 1965
  • Arthur M. Sackler (1913-1987) Collections
  • Else Sackler (1913-2000)
  • Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, 1997

Estimate: US$200,000 - 300,000

Lot 1159 | A set of four zitan stools
52.7 x 46.4 x 36.2 cm

  • Prince Gong (1833-1898) (sixth son of Emperor Daoguang, r. 1821-1850) Collection
  • The J. M. Hu (1911-1995), Zande Lou Collection

Estimate: US$150,000 - 250,000

Lot 1155 | A huanghuali rectangular side table
17th-18th century
81.9 x 102.8 x 63.3 cm

  • XYH Antique, Vallejo, California, 7 July 2010

Estimate: US$120,000 - 180,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Christie's New York
Sale: Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art
Number of Lots: 263

  • Lot 1001-1090 | 23 March 2023, 2pm (New York Local Time) 
  • Lot 1101-1175 | 24 March 2023, 8:30am (New York Local Time)
  • Lot 1201-1298 | 24 March 2023, 2pm (New York Local Time)