A reunited compound cabinet made for Emperor Kangxi fetches US$7m in Hong Kong

In Wong Kar-wai's martial arts epic, The Grandmaster, there is a famous line that resonates, "All encounters in life are reunions after long times apart." Little did we expect that such a story could unfold within the realm of Chinese antiques.

During Sotheby's Hong Kong 50th Anniversary Autumn Sales, a zitan 'dragon' compound cabinet from the Kangxi period (r.1662-1722) captured everyone's attention with its enormous size. 

It turned out that the three different components of the cabinet had embarked on separate journeys since leaving the Forbidden City. Over the past decade, these pieces re-emerged one by one through three auctions in Paris. 

On 9 October, for the first time, the three cabinets were finally reunited in their original form on the auction block, ultimately selling for an impressive HK$54.6 million (US$7 million). 

Lot 3625 | A massive zitan 'dragon' compound cabinet
Qing dynasty, Kangxi period
210 x 46 x 372 cm
Provenance (Consolidated by The Value):
Top left cabinet:

  • Collection of Serge Sandberg (1879-1981), acquired before 1942 according to the collector's correspondence, and thence in the family by descent
  • Sotheby’s Paris, 12th June 2018, lot 144 (Sold: €393,000)

Top right cabinet:

  • A French private collection
  • Christie's Paris, 12th June 2019, lot 76 (Sold: €406,000)

Main cabinet:

  • A French private collection
  • Sotheby's Paris, 15th December 2011, lot 35 (Sold: €2,528,750)

Estimate upon request
Hammer Price: HK$45,000,000
Sold: HK$54,595,000 (US$7 million)

Standing over three metres high and two metres wide, this zitan wooden compound cabinet is arguably the largest and the most glamorous of its type to ever appear on the market. As suggested by Sotheby's, the piece was also likely made for the personal use of the Kangxi Emperor.

Bidding on the lot started at HK$24 million and saw two interested collectors – one on the phone with Sotheby's specialist; the other bidding live in the saleroom. After nine bids, the lot was hammered at HK$45 million to the in-room bidder with paddle number 8807.

The different components that complete this magnificent piece of furniture have been separated and possibly passed inside the members of the same French family, before the main cabinet went under the hammer for the first time at Sotheby's Paris in 2011. 

Seven years later, in 2018, the top left cabinet resurfaced at Sotheby's Paris and went to join the current seller's collection; and finally, in 2019, the last piece of the puzzle fell into place as the top right cabinet hit the auction block at Christie's Paris. Based on the exchange rate at the time of purchase, altogether the compound cabinet cost approximately HK$32.8 million.

Now with a final price with fees of HK$54.6 million (US$7 million), it saw a HK$22 million increase in value.

Zitan woods are slow-growing and require centuries to fully mature into usable material. Historically, zitan was primarily grown in India and Southeast Asia, with a limited quantity available in China.

Appreciated for its jade-like silky texture, fine and dense grain, and subtle floral aroma, zitan became the Qing Emperors' most favoured timber with no expense spared in acquiring it. As an imported commodity, its use was scrupulously monitored and carefully restricted, only available by imperial decree to the master craftsmen at the Wood Workshop located within the confines of the Forbidden City.

Massive in size, the cabinet represents not only a luxurious use of the court's most treasured timber but also the highest status and authority of the owner – even more so with delicate engravings of sixteen dragons chasing flaming pearls. 

A zitan cabinet of different structures with the same theme is exhibited in Beijing's Palace Museum 

Across many dynasties in imperial China, the dragon had been a symbol of the emperors, and its image was strictly prohibited for use by ordinary people during the Qing dynasty. 

Here on the cabinet, eight pairs of sinuous dragons are in pursuit of flaming pearls – the representation of a celestial luminary, either the sun or the moon. The treatment of the heads and bodies, as the dragons swirl in and out of the clouds and waters, display the court craftsmen's remarkable expertise applied to the zitan wood, bringing the composition to life and conveying a sense of three-dimensional space on the two-dimensional surface of the cabinet.

A well-known imperial zitan cabinet with the same motif, though of different structures, is now in the bedroom behind the Hall of Mental Cultivation (Yangxin Dian) in Beijing's Palace Museum. That cabinet was built to fit the hall which became the main residence of the Yongzheng Emperor (r. 1722 - 1735) and was used by his successors subsequently.

Nicolas Chow | Chairman of Sotheby's Asia

Lot 3612 | A possibly unique carved celadon-glazed 'dragon' vessel, meiping
Seal mark and period of Qianlong
Height: 35.3 cm

  • An English collection
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 4th/5th November 1997, lot 1356

Estimate upon request
Hammer Price: HK$38,000,000
Sold: HK$47,640,000 (US$6.1 million)

On an opening bid of HK$26 million, the celadon-glazed vase attracted ten bids from two in-room bidders and went to a gentleman in the front row with paddle number 8073 for a hammer price of HK$38 million. With fees, its final sum became HK$47.6 million (US$6.1 million).

Evenly covered with a soft bluish-green glaze and modelled with outstanding proportions, this vase serves as a testament to the level of craftsmanship achieved at the imperial kilns under the supervision of Tang Ying, the most inventive and capable ceramicist the Chinese royal court ever had.

According to Sotheby's, the vase is possibly unique, with no example of the same design and size appears to be recorded.

There are two similar vases, though – a slightly smaller one which bears a firing crack extending across the mark and along one side of the vase was sold at Sotheby's New York in 1982; another further smaller one, carved with three five-clawed dragons, from the renowned Jingguantang collection, was sold at Christie's Hong Kong in 2022 for HK$81 million (US$10.4 million).

A 'dragon' celadon-glazed meiping | Formerly in the Jingguantang Collection | Sold: HK$81,060,000 (US$10.4 million), Christie's Hong Kong, 2022

The scene is known as Canglong jiaozi

A scroll depicting one of Qianlong Emperor's wives and the young Jiaqing Emperor | Beijing's Palace Museum

Crisply carved, the decoration on the vase portrays five scaly dragons, the largest one rendered three-clawed swooping down from the shoulder above a smaller five-clawed dragon emerging from the waves – a scene known as Canglong jiaozi, which literally translates as "an old dragon teaches his son". 

For the Qianlong Emperor, the motif embodied his high hopes for the never-ending flourishing of the Qing dynasty – which depended much on his discerning eyes for a promising heir.  

In 1773, the Emperor discreetly decided to pass his throne to his 15th son, Yongyan – who later became the Jiaqing Emperor in 1796. Throughout the years, the Qianlong Emperor had been teaching and preparing him for the throne.

On the vase, the large dragon represents the Qianlong Emperor as a father, while the smaller one is the Jiaqing Emperor as a son. As such, Canglong jiaozi became one of Qianlong’s favorite motifs, as it encompasses Qianlong’s effort as he guided Jiaqing through the hardships of being an Emperor, and the weight that comes with his crown.

Aside from the detailed and exquisite decoration, the vase is also remarkable for its well-balanced form and size, which measures 35.3 cm in height.

A classic and famed Chinese ceramic shape, the meiping, or plum vessel, is characterized by a mellow profile, which curved in a fluid line from the narrow-waisted neck over the well-rounded shoulder, tapering down in a gentle curve before flaring again slightly towards a small base. 

In traditional Chinese culture, this elegant silhouette was regarded as a reflection of a man’s physique and a symbol of a gentleman – a small mouth means minding one’s language; a broad shoulder represents taking responsibility.

Originating in the Song dynasty (960 - 1279), plum vessels were initially used to store plum wine. As it gained popularity in the following dynasties, it became a vessel for displaying flowers, often a single branch of plum blossom. 

Other Highlight Lots:

Lot 3627 | A hardstone-inlaid zitan low table, kangzhuo
Qing dynasty, Kangxi period
100 x 69.5 x 30.5 cm
Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$5,800,000
Sold: HK$7,366,000

Lot 3630 | A white jade teapot and cover
Qing dynasty, Qianlong period
18 cm

  • Collection of the Estate of Sammie Sanford Dunn
  • Christie's New York, 21st March 2000, lot 136

Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 10,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$5,000,000
Sold: HK$6,350,000

Lot 3604 | A blue and white 'fish' dish
Mark and period of Chenghua
Diameter: 15.1 cm

  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 1st May 2001, lot 514

Estimate: HK$5,000,000 - 7,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$5,000,000
Sold: HK$6,350,000

Lot 3602 | A pair of doucai 'Eight Immortals' bowls
Marks and period of Yongzheng
Diameter: 10.9 cm

  • Collection of Chutaro Nakano (1862-1939), Niigata, acquired in the early 20th century
  • Christie’s Hong Kong, 31st May 2010, lot 1876
  • An Asian family collection
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 7th October 2015, lot 3637

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,600,000
Sold: HK$5,842,000

Lot 3607 | A gilt-bronze seated figure of Avalokiteshvara
Mark and period of Yongle
Height: 21.5 cm

  • Collection of Tuyet Nguyet and Stephen Markbreiter
  • Sotheby’s Hong Kong, 7th October 2010, lot 2146

Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer Price: HK$4,000,000
Sold: HK$5,080,000

Lot 3667 | A small doucai 'lotus' 'monk's cap' ewer
Seal mark and period of Qianlong
Width: 14.7 cm
Estimate: HK$4,500,000 - 6,500,000
Hammer Price: HK$3,900,000
Sold: HK$4,953,000

Auction Details:

Auction House: Sotheby's Hong Kong
Sale: Important Chinese Art
Date: 9 October 2023
Number of Lots: 104
Sold: 46
Unsold: 58
Sale Rate: 44%
Sale Total: HK$195,186,300