Sotheby’s to Reignite Huanghuali Furniture Frenzy This Autumn Auction

10 huanghuali furniture from Ming or Qing dynasties achieved remarkable results at Sotheby’s spring sale Monochrome this July, contributing HK$167m (US$21.5m) to the sale total. The top three lots of the sale were all huanghuali pieces and some were even sold for 10 times its estimate.

This autumn, Sotheby’s steps up its game in the second instalment Monochrome II, offering more than 20 pieces of Ming huanghuali pieces ranging from a canopy bed, a twelve-leaf screen to painting tables. They are likely to elicit intense bidding wars again this season.

Here we are going to introduce 15 exquisite Huanghuali lots to be offered at the sale.

Lot 53|An Exceptional and Rare Huanghuali Six-Post Canopy Bed Ming Dynasty, 17th Century
Size: 226 x 156.2 x 226 cm

  • Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture, California.
  • Christie's New York, 19th September 1996, lot 62.

Estimate: HK$20,000,000 - 30,000,000

Sumptuously carved in openwork with sinuous chilong writhing around auspicious motifs, this magnificent canopy bed is a display of 17th century aristocratic splendour. Employed in the inner quarters by both men and women, beds were the focal point of the household, and six-post canopy beds were most luxurious and impressive type of bed that one could own.

While used by both men and women, canopy beds were the most used pieces of furniture in women’s apartments. 17th century households that adhered to Confucian norms confined women to the inner courtyards of a family compound, away from the front of the house where important male visitors were received and official functions took place. Bedrooms were informal rooms where women spent many of their waking hours, thus their furnishing, especially the bed, were important status symbols, indicating their position within the family.

During daytime, canopy beds were used as seats for informal leisure: a long table and footstool were placed in front of the bed for comfortably reading or eating. A few stools and chairs could be arranged around the bed for an informal gathering. At night, curtains were hanged within the bedframe to protect from drafts, mosquitoes as well as prying eyes. These curtains were carefully chosen as their colour and patterns emphasised the intricate openwork carving of the bedrail.

Six-post canopy beds are essentially a room within a room as their design aesthetic principles of Chinese classical architecture. Their six-post construction mimics three-bay buildings such as pavilions, where the roof is supported by posts and the lack of walls merges outdoor and inner space. The sophisticated openwork railings recall a building’s balustrade, which have the dual function of creating interest through their decoration and increasing stability. In addition, the upper panels under the canopy roof are carved to allow air circulation as the panels under the eaves of buildings.

Beds were the place where children were conceived and their decoration is often filled with auspicious omens that reflect this function. On this bed sinuous chilong, young hornless dragons, dominate the design and represent the aspiration of conceiving meritorious sons. Auspicious clouds, rocks and lingzhi, and shou (longevity) characters were believed to bring blessings and good luck to those within. 

Lot 12|An Extremely Rare Huanghuali Twelve-Leaf Screen Late Ming Dynasty

Size: 61 x 3 x 306 cm
Christie's Hong Kong, 31st October 1994, lot 419.
Estimate: HK$5,000,000 - 7,000,000

This magnificent screen would have stood in a grand hall to create a striking backdrop for a formal reception or official event. Deftly carved with an intricate motif of chilong and auspicious characters, this screen demonstrates the bold creativity of woodcarvers working in the 17th century.

While the chilong seen on these panels were inspired by archaism, their vigorous and dynamic rendering on this piece is unusual. The folding screen served multiple functions: it divided a room concealing areas and objects that were not supposed to be displayed, and provided a hiding place for ladies, who could peek at important visitors through the openwork carving. When mounted with paintings by a famous artist or lines from a favourite poem, both of which were viewed and read from right to left as a traditional Chinese book, it heightened their importance and showcased the sophisticated taste of the master of the house.

Such monumental screens were made only for the wealthiest aristocratic families, and are thus very rare. Multi-panelled screens have a long history in China, developing from single-panelled screens made as early as the Warring States period (475-221 BC) and becoming popular from the Northern Wei dynasty (AD 386-534). These early screens, which were relatively short, framed a platform where high-ranking individuals sat or enclosed a canopy bed to provide privacy. They thus had both an honorific and protective function. Screens gradually become larger and the most impressive examples were made in the Ming and Qing dynasties. While they often appear on woodblock printed books of the period, extant examples are rare.


Lot 88|A Rare Pair of Huanghuali Compound Cabinets, Sijiangui Ming Dynasty, 17th Century
Size: 126.5 x 63 x 251 cm
Provenance: Peter Lai Antiques, Hong Kong, 10th April 1990.
Estimate: HK$5,000,000 - 7,000,000

These massive cabinets are the largest type of furniture produced by Ming cabinet makers. Composed of a wide square-corner cabinet and a smaller chest that was placed on top, they combine functionality, durability, elegance and simplicity, characteristics that define classical Chinese furniture. The masterful craftsmanship in the present lot with the decoration of the turbulent waves on jagged rocks on the sides in particular suggests an imperial association for the cabinets.

Compound cabinets were the piece-of-resistance in the home of wealthy families. Displayed in inner reception halls or kept in the women private quarters, their sheer size and angular silhouette were designed to create an impression of awe.

In a passage from the 18th century novel Honglou meng [The dream of the red chamber], Granny Liu, an elderly country woman describes seeing for the first time the furniture in the Jia family compound: "They say that 'great families live in great houses' and truly when I first went into Your Ladyship's apartment yesterday and saw those great chests and cupboards and tables and beds, they took my breath away. That great wardrobe of yours is higher and wider than one of our rooms back home".

Chinese garments were never hanged but folded into flat rectangles and stacked in cabinets, and the large size of these cabinets made them ideal for storing garments or other large items. The upper chests, which were less accessible and often required a ladder to reach them, were used for storing accessories or garments that were needed less frequently. Large chests were part of a bride's dowry, and the Ming dynasty novel Jin Ping Mei [Plum in the Golden Vase], reveals that lady's fur coats were kept in large cabinets (da chu) that could be locked.

Lot 75|A Rare and Large Pair of Huanghuali Square-Corner Display Cabinets, Wanligui 17th Century
Size: 141 x 51.8 x 193 cm
Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000

Striking for their imposing size, this pair of cabinets with open shelves demonstrate the exceptional skill of 17th century furniture makers in their ability to take full advantage of the vivid colours and patterns of precious hardwood.

This type of cabinets with multiple open shelves, known as Wanligui (Wanli period cabinets), is highly unusual. First appearing in the mid- to late Ming dynasty, they were generally kept in the scholar’s studio, where their arrangement either side by side or on opposite walls, created a visual symmetry sought after in Chinese room design.

The top shelves were used for storing books and scrolls as well as treasured antiques, while writing implements, such as brushes and ink, were kept inside the drawers. The sturdier and enclosed lower were on the other hand, used for storing more fragile objects or tea utensils that could be brought out in the presence of guests. Referred to as lianggegui by modern cabinet makers, this type of bookshelf seldom appears on contemporary woodblock printed books, attesting to its rarity.

The display and storage of books in the scholar’s studio was of great importance as it was indicative of the level of education and cultural refinement of the master of the house. The scholar Gao Lian (1573-1620) in his Zun sheng bajian [Eight discourses on the art of living], first published in 1591, mentions that bookcases “should be used for placing one’s favourite books, which could be Confucian classics, poems, Buddhist scriptures or for important medical literature and calligraphy”.

Lot 5|A Huanghuali Recessed-Leg Long Table, Qiaotouan Ming Dynasty, 17th Century

Size: 267 x 50 x 89 cm
Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1987.
Estimate: HK$3,500,000 - 4,500,000

Long and narrow rectangular tables with upturned flanges were popular in wealthy households of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing dynasties. 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. Placed against the south wall of the reception hall, where important male visitors were greeted, they were used for the display of a few tasteful objects, such as fantastic rocks, seasonal flowers or a treasured antique. Tables of this type with the panels between the legs carved with ruyi heads appear often on contemporary printed books and paintings.

Lot 120|A Large Huanghuali Tielimu-Inset Painting Table, Pingtouan Ming Dynasty, 17th Century
Size: 266 x 67.5 x 81.5 cm
Christie's Hong Kong, 31st October 1994, lot 418.
Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 4,000,000

The elaborately carved surfaces make this table particularly rare, as tables of this form are generally undecorated. Tables with legs not at the corners but recessed represent a classic and highly recognisable Ming dynasty design. They have historically been referred to as 'character one' tables, as the Chinese character for the word 'one' is written as a single horizontal stroke.

Inspired by classical Chinese wood buildings, this design was very popular from the Song dynasty (960-1279) onwards, often appearing on woodblock printed books and paintings. One of the most enduring and successful designs in classical Chinese furniture, the spare minimalist lines of these tables have a timeless elegance.

Lot 45|A Pair of Huanghuali Round-Corner Tapered Cabinets, Yuanjiaogui Ming Dynasty, 17th Century
Size: 96 x 51 x 179 cm
Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000

The round-corner cabinet 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.

Lot 47|A Pair of Huanghuali Rectangular Corner-Leg Tables, Tiaozhuo Ming Dynasty, Early 17th Century

Size: 120.5 x 62.7 x 87.2cm
Provenance: Peter Lai Antiques, Hong Kong, 10th April 1990.
Estimate: HK$2,000,000 - 3,000,000

This elegant pair of tables exemplifies the ingenuity of Ming carpenters, who developed sophisticated joinery techniques to create tables that could support heavy loads with the minimum use of material. The restrained elegance of these tables is achieved through their simianping, or ‘four corner’s flush’, construction where the legs are set flush to the table top, and joined by carved spandrels that add stability and strength. This design, which first emerged in the Song dynasty (960-1279), was considered one of the most attractive furniture designs in the Ming period.

Narrow rectangular tables with legs at the four corners (zhuo) were some of the most versatile types of furniture, ubiquitous in every Ming households. Woodblock printed illustrations depicts them being used in numerous different ways, according to different needs and contexts. They are commonly depicted in bedrooms and used as writing desks or for informal meals, against the side walls of reception halls where flowers or other tasteful objects were displayed, as well as for formal dining.

Lot 72|A Huanghuali Daybed, Ta Ming Dynasty, 16th – 17th Century
Size: 212 x 108.5 x 50 cm

  • The Gangolf Geis Collection.
  • Christie's New York, 18th September 2003, lot 20.

Estimate: HK$1,800,000 - 2,200,000

Daybeds, ta, are among the oldest type of furniture made in China. Popular since the Han dynasty, when they elevated high-ranking individuals, by the Ming period these raised rectangular platforms were used both in scholar's studios and in sleeping quarters. More commonly made to accommodate only one person, the impressive proportions of the present example would have made it an ideal double-bed at night and a practical living platform during the day.

The rounded members of this daybed and its stretchers, which encircle the legs and create a double-moulded design, imitate bamboo furniture construction. Bamboo had long proved a popular furniture medium: not only was this wood traditionally associated with virtuous qualities in a scholar, its flexibility and natural roundness allowed craftsmen to create furniture that was comfortable, light and attractive. Ming dynasty cabinet-makers recreated these qualities in precious hardwood through a laborious process of carving and lathing.

Lot 38|A Huanghuali Medicine Chest, Yaoxiang Ming Dynasty, 17th Century
Size: 84.8 x 46 x 112.5 cm
Christie's New York, 3rd December 1994, lot 258.
Estimate: HK$1,500,000 - 2,000,000

The panelled doors of this cabinet open to reveal fourteen small drawers of different sizes. Square-corner cabinets with multiple drawers are generally described as apothecary cabinets and used for storing herbs and medicines, but could have been used to store and sort a variety of objects, from documents to writing materials, accessories and treasured objects. The Ming dynasty intellectual and theorist on interior design Li Yu (1611-1680?), in his Xian qing ou ji [Random notes on times of leisure] from 1671, discusses the usefulness of drawers and describes a multi-drawer cabinet designed for scholars after pharmacists’ ‘hundred-eye cabinet’ (bai yan chu).

Lot 99|An Important and Very Rare Huanghuali Table, Banzhuo Ming Dynasty, 16th – 17th Century

Size: 104.5 x 64.4 x 86.7 cm

  • The Gangolf Geis Collection.
  • Christie's New York, 18th September 2003, lot 23.

Estimate: HK$1,200,000 - 1,800,000

This exquisite table is special for its finely carved aprons and spandrels, which include a lively depiction of phoenix among clouds flanking the sun. It belongs to a highly unusual group of profusely decorated side tables, whose upper part resembles a kang table – low tables used on the heated kang. The well-known Chinese furniture scholar Wang Shixiang thus refers to them as ai zhuo zhan tui shi or 'low table with extended legs'. The abundance of carved decoration on these tables represents a clear departure from the clean and sober aesthetics more commonly associated with 17th century furniture, and demonstrates the co-existence of different furniture styles in this period.

Lot 33|A Huanghuali Reclining Chair Qing Dynasty, 18th Century

Size: 103.5 x 70 x 100 cm
Peter Lai Antiques, Hong Kong, 10th April 1990.
Estimate: HK$800,000 - 1,200,000

This design derives from prototypes known since the Ming dynasty, when reclining chairs of this type enjoyed popularity in the Ming and Qing dynasties. These chairs were found in garden pavilions during the Ming dynasty.

Lot 60|A Very Rare Huanghuali Folding Stool, Jiaowu 17th Century

Size: 57.3 x 37.3 x 53.5 cm

  • The Gangolf Geis Collection.
  • Christie's New York, 18th September 2003, lot 27.

Estimate: HK$300,000 - 500,000

As conveniently lightweight and comfortable seats, folding stools such as the current example were popular in the Ming dynasty among travelling scholars and military officials. This design derives from prototypes known since the Han dynasty, when folding stools were imported by nomadic tribes from Central Asia and popularised by Emperor Lingdi (AD 168-189), who was fascinated by the foreign portable seat.

Lot 17|A Huanghuali Rectangular Corner-Leg Waisted Side Table, Banzhuo Ming Dynasty, 17th Century
Size: 101.3 x 44.7 x 91 cm
Provenance: Peter Lai Antiques, Hong Kong, 10th April 1990.
Estimate: HK$600,000 - 800,000

Lot 1|A Huanghuali Rectangular High-Waisted Stand Ming Dynasty, 17th Century
Size: 38.6 x 27.7 x 79 cm
Provenance: Peter Lai Antiques, Hong Kong, 10th April 1990.
Estimate: HK$300,000 - 500,000

Auction details
Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Monochrome II
Preview: 3 – 8 October 2020
Preview location: Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre
Exhibition: 9 October 2020 |2pm
Auction location: Sotheby's Gallery, 5/F, One Pacific Place, 88 Queensway