US$15.8m huanghuali 'camping chair' becomes the most expensive Chinese chair

This season's Hong Kong autumn sales week saw Sotheby's star-studded line-up of Chinese works of arts. Kicking off the marquee auctions was The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung Sale, which turned out to be a massive success led by the house's star auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd.

Amongst 28 lots offered, 26 were sold, where many had elicited intense bidding wars to achieve astounding prices far beyond estimates. In the end, the sale total came to nearly HK$470 million (around US$59.8 million) with a strong sell-through rate of 93%. 

The show-stopper was a huanghuali folding horseshoe back armchair from late Ming dynasty (1368-1644), which carried a low estimate of HK$10 million. After a 20-minute showdown, it was hammered down at HK$106 million and sold for a staggering HK$124 million (around US$15.8 million) with buyer's premium to become the most expensive Chinese chair and the second most expensive Chinese classical furniture ever sold.

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 

Lot 11 | Huanghuali Folding Horseshoe Back Armchair, Jiaoyi
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

Estimate: HK$10,000,000 – 15,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$106,000,000
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.

After 45 bids, the price reached HK$85 million, and 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 20-minute face-off eventually came to a close with the floor bidder with paddle number 8828 placing a victorious bid of HK$106 million. The room was filled with a round of applause before moving on to the next lot.

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

The lot 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.

Lot 9 | Qi Baishi | Flowers and Fruits, Ink and colour on paper, set of four, hanging scroll
Created during 1864 - 1957
Each 283.8 x 54.2 cm

  • Collection of Zhupingan Guan
  • Christie's Hong Kong, Fine Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Chinese Paintings, 18 January 1988, lot 200

Estimate: HK$18,000,000 - 30,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$66,000,000
Sold: HK$
78,649,000 (around US$10 million)


Also elicited electrifying biddings was Qi Baishi's Flowers and Fruits. The bid started at HK$12 million, and when the price reached HK$14 million, Carmen Ip, Head of Chinese Paintings Department, Sotheby's Hong Kong, suddenly surprised everyone in the room by placing an ambitious bid of HK$45 million.

The remaining bidders, however, continued undeterred and the price went up steadily in HK$1 increments – until Carmen Ip tried another spirited bid at HK$60 million. The main competitor left was the telephone bidder represented by Charlie Shen, Specialist, Chinese Paintings and Calligraphy. 

In the end, it was Charlie's client with paddle number L0026 who brought the hammer down at HK66 million. After fees, the lot fetched HK$78.6 million (around US$10 million) to become the second most expensive work of the sale.

The house's star auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd

Charlie Shen (middle) won the lot for her client with paddle number L0026

Qi Baishi was quite prolific, but he produced very few multi-part works. The four-panel Flowers and Fruits is a colossal work spanning more than nine feet in height. According to publicly available materials, this is the largest extant multi-panel work by Qi Baishi.

The four-scroll work depicts peaches, loquats and plantain lilies, pomegranates and plumed cockscombs and grapes. The peaches are scrumptious and large – myths have it that one can extend one’s life by a thousand years if the peaches are eaten. The loquats are perfectly round and wonderfully golden, symbolizing enormous wealth.

Pomegranate seeds and grapes come in clusters, which imply a wish for abundant offspring. Finally, the plumed cockscombs and plantain lilies stand for advancement in career and growing wealth. The presentation of these symbolic flowers and fruit all together signify robust vitality and offer well-wishes for longevity, endless good fortune, and lasting family prosperity.

Lot 10 | Gilt Bronze Seated Figure of Avalokiteshvara, Acuoye Guanyin | Dali Kingdom
Created during 11th to 12th century
Height: 37.8 cm | Overall: 41.9 cm

  • Collection of Peng Kai-dong, alias Nitta Muneichi (1912-2006), the Nitta Group Collection
  • Christie's Hong Kong, 26th April 1998, Lot 606
  • R.H. Ellsworth Ltd, New York, 30th July 1998

Estimate: HK$15,000,000 – 20,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$40,000,000
Sold: HK$48,775,000 (around US$6.2 million)


The third most priciest lot of the sale belonged to this gilt bronze seated figure of Avalokiteshvara. The bidding started at HK$8 million and over 30 bids propelled the hammer price to HK$40 million, placed by the telephone bidder with paddle number L0085 represented by Jesica Lee. After fees, it fetched HK$48.7 million (around US$6.2 million).

This present figure comes from the collection of Nitta Muneichi (1912-2006), who was born in Taipei as Peng Kai-dong. He later left for Japan as an adolescent and took on a Japanese name. He became a successful businessman with a company covering a wide range of different industries – such as retailing, jewellery, restaurants, galleries, and property management. After World War Two, he opened an antique shop in Tokyo and he began collecting Buddhist bronzes in 1950, which eventually became his main collecting interest.

A legendary art collector, Nitta donated many Buddhist artworks to prestigious museums – such as the National Palace Museum, Taipei; Tokyo National Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. On top of that, he had even ‘beaten’ The Louvre as well as the British Museum in auctions.

Shakyamuni Buddha, gilt bronze (477 CE) | Height: 40.3 cm | National Palace Museum, Taipei

Nitta Muneichi

Gilt bronze Buddhist figures such as the present Avalokiteshvara sculpture hold a unique place in the development of Chinese Buddhist sculptures. They are remarkable due to their distinctive style, grace, serenity and their sheer size. Acuoye bodhisattvas – such as this present one – are mostly depicted as standing figures. A seated sculpture, however, is rare and the present Guanyin appeals with its gentle, feminine facial features.

Oeuvres of this type can be attributed to southwestern China, today’s Yunnan province – a region that was ruled under the Nanzhao (750-902) and later Dali (937-1253) kingdoms. During the 9th century CE, Buddhism was established as state religion and the religion was facing multiple challenges to flourish in China’s heartland in the next few centuries.

As found in this sculpture, Yunnanese gilt-bronze bodhisattva figures are distinctive through their physical characteristics of a slender built with prominent shoulders, hands held in gestures of teaching (vitarka mudra) and wish-granting (varada mudra). Alongside these depictions, they are also adorned with bejewelled necklace, armlets and single bracelet, simple dhoti, and high coiffure with an Amitabha Buddha figure in front, which identifies them as representations of Avalokiteshvara. This style appears to have been developed at least by the 10th century.

Other Highlight Lots: 

Lot 6 | Blue and White ‘Fish’ Jar, Guan
Created during Yuan dynasty (1279-1368)
Width: 35.3 cm
Provenance (Amended by The Value):

  • A European private collection
  • Christie’s London, 11th July 2006, Lot 111 and back cover (Sold: £2,136,000)
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London, 2006

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 – 25,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$32,500,000
Sold: HK$39,700,000

Lot 1 | Bronze Male Chimera, Bixie
Created during Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE)
Length: 27 cm | Height: 18 cm

  • L. Wannieck, Paris, 1924 or earlier
  • Collection of Baron Adolphe Stoclet (1871-1949), Brussels, 1934 or earlier
  • Collection of Madame Raymonde Feron-Stoclet (1897-1963), Brussels, and thence by descent
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London, 25th March 2003

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 – 8,000,000 
Hammer Price: HK$29,000,000
Sold: HK$

Lot 24 | Qi Baishi | Bodhidharma Meditating Under the Bodhi Tree, Ink and colour on paper, framed
136 x 45 cm

  • Collection of Hsiung Shih-i (1902-1991)
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Modern Chinese Paintings, 28 May 1980, Lot 17

Estimate: HK$3,500,000 – 5,000,000 
Hammer Price: HK$25,000,000
Sold: HK$30,625,000

Lot 13 | Moulded Blue and White Barbed ‘Fish’ Charger
Created during Yuan dynasty (1279-1368)
Diameter: 47.8 cm

  • Sotheby’s New York, 9th September 1987, lot 256 and cover
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London
  • Collection of T.T. Tsui, Jingguantang Collection, Hong Kong
  • Christie’s Hong Kong, 29th April 2002, Lot 607

Estimate: HK$30,000,000 – 50,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$15,000,000
Sold: HK$18,525,000

Lot 17 | A jade animal-shaped plaque
Created during late Eastern Zhou - Western Han dynasty, 3rd - 2nd century BC
14.8 x 6.9 x 0.5 cm

  • Artistic Sources Arts Co., Hong Kong, 5th August 1992

Estimate: HK$800,000 – 1,200,000
Hammer Price: HK$13,000,000
Sold: HK$16,105,000

Lot 12 | Junyao Purple and Blue Glazed Tripod Narcissus Bowl
Created during early Ming dynasty (1368-1644)
Width: 20.7 cm

  • The Canton Collection, Hong Kong
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 17th November 1975, Lot 4
  • Sotheby's London, 10th December 1991, Lot 136
  • Yin Chuan Tang Ltd, Hong Kong, 10th November 1994

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 – 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$12,000,000
Sold: HK$14,895,000

Lot 14 | Huanghuali Painting Table  
Created during the Kangxi period (1661-1722)
171 x 89.5 x 86.5 cm

  • R.H. Ellsworth Ltd, New York, 12th June 1982

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 – 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$8,000,000
Sold: HK$10,055,000

Lot 15 | A bronze figure standing on a crouching beast
Created during Eastern Zhou dynasty, Warring States period
Height: 22.8 cm

  • J.J. Lally & Co., New York, 10th February 1992

Estimate: HK$500,000 – 700,000
Hammer Price: HK$7,000,000
Sold: HK$8,820,000

Lot 2 | Anonymous | Melon and Grasses, Ink and colour on paper, one album leaf, framed
Created during Ming Dynasty, 16th dynasty, China
27 x 28.5 cm

  • Collection of Zhang Xueling, Taiwan
  • Sotheby’s New York, Fine Chinese Paintings, 2 June 1987, lot 3
  • Eskenazi Ltd, London, 2009

Estimate: HK$300,000 – 500,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,100,000
Sold: HK$5,166,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Hotung | The Personal Collection of the late Sir Joseph Hotung: Part 1 | Evening
Date and Time: 8 October 2022 | 7:30pm (Hong Kong local time)
Number of lots: 28
Sold: 26
Unsold: 2
Sale Rate: 93%
Sale Total: HK$469,226,800 (around US$59.8 million)