21 Ming Huanghuali Furniture Pieces Bring in HK$202m at Sotheby’s 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 their estimate.

This autumn, Sotheby’s stepped up its game in the second instalment Monochrome II, offering 23 pieces of Ming huanghuali furniture. Even though the frenzy has cooled down a little bit, they were still highly sought-after by collectors.

Excluding the two bought-in lots, 21 huanghuali pieces raked in HK$202m (US$26m), accounting for nearly 60% of the sale total. The star lot of the sale fell on a pair of square-corner display cabinets that sold with a hammer price of HK$48m, 12 times its estimate, and fetched HK$57.21m  (US$7.38m) after premium.

Below are some highlights of the sale.

Lot 75|A Rare and Large Pair of Huanghuali Square-Corner Display Cabinets, Wanligui 17th Century | Realised the highest price at the sale
Size: 141 x 51.8 x 193 cm
Estimate: HK$4,000,000 - 6,000,000
Hammer price: HK$48,000,00
Price realised: HK$57,218,000

The leading lot of the sale saw strong interest from bidders and elicited a bidding war. After the auctioneer started the bidding at HK$3m, the price went steadily up with an increment of HK$500,000. When the price reached HK$6m, an impatient bidder tried to speed up the process by offering HK$10m as the next bid. The price was further pushed up to HK$12m and quickly jumped to HK$20m and HK$25m with the next two bids.

There were mainly three telephone bidders, represented by Nicolas Chow (Chairman, Asia), Carrie Li (Senior Specialist, Chinese Works of Art) and Pinky Tam (Marketing Manager). The winner was Carrie Li’s client, who bought the cabinets for a hammer price of HK$48m, which is HK$57.21m after premium.

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 53|An Exceptional and Rare Huanghuali Six-Post Canopy Bed Ming Dynasty, 17th Century | Realised the second highest price at the sale

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
Hammer price: HK$19,000,000
Price realised: HK$23,165,000

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.

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
Hammer price: HK$16,000,000
Price realised: HK$19,535,000

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

Size: 267 x 50 x 89 cm
Provenance: Grace Wu Bruce, Hong Kong, 1987.
Estimate: HK$3,500,000 - 4,500,000
Price realised: HK$17,115,000

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 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
Hammer price: HK$11,000,000
Price realised: HK$13,485,000

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 33A Huanghuali Reclining Chair Qing Dynasty, 18th Century

Size: 103.5 x 70 x 100 cm
Provenance: Peter Lai Antiques, Hong Kong, 10th April 1990.
Estimate: HK$800,000 - 1,200,000
Hammer price: HK$7,500,000
Price realised: HK$9,250,000

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 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
Hammer price: HK$7,000,000
Price realised: HK$8,645,000

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 120|A Large Huanghuali Tielimu-Inset Painting Table, Pingtouan Ming Dynasty, 17th Century

Size: 266 x 67.5 x 81.5 cm
Provenance: Christie's Hong Kong, 31st October 1994, lot 418.
Estimate: HK$3,000,000 - 4,000,000
Hammer price: HK$7,000,000
Price realised: HK$8,645,000

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 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
Hammer price: HK$6,500,000
Price realised: HK$8,040,000

Lot 38|A Huanghuali Medicine Chest, Yaoxiang Ming Dynasty, 17th Century

Size: 84.8 x 46 x 112.5 cm
Provenance: Christie's New York, 3rd December 1994, lot 258.
Estimate: HK$1,500,000 - 2,000,000
Hammer price: HK$4,200,000
Price realised: HK$5,257,000

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 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
Hammer price: HK$5,200,000
Price realised: HK$6,467,000

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 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
Hammer price: HK$2,200,000
Price realised: HK$2,772,000

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.

The sale offered 123 lots with 40 lots failed to sell, a sell-through rate of 67%. Salvaged by the outstanding results of huanghuali lots, the total hammer price reached HK$277m, exceeding the total estimate of HK$170m-240m.

Here are other notable lots besides Huanghuali furniture from the sale:

Lot 16|An Extremely Rare and Important Jade 'Twin Bird' Stem Cup Western Han Dynasty | Realised the third highest price at the sale

Height: 11.3 cm
Provenance: Acquired in Hong Kong, 20th June 1993.
Estimate: HK$6,000,000 - 8,000,000
Hammer price: HK$18,000,000
Price realised: HK$21,955,000

Around the time of the Western Han (206 BC – AD 9), jade stem cups of this type were items of the highest prestige produced for the Chinese imperial house, local royalty and a privileged elite connected to these courts. Related beakers have been discovered at some of the period’s most important residential and burial sites, and were in tombs placed in prominent position. They were not ordinary wine cups, but are believed to have been used in connection with immortality rites, possibly as receptacles to contain gathered dew which, mixed with powdered jade, is said to have been consumed as immortality elixir. The bird decoration on the present cup appears to be unique, but would seem to support such usage.

The present cup is remarkable for its superbly designed and executed, majestic bird motif. The phoenix-like bird with its down-curved beak, up-curved crest, fanciful tail, standing on one leg, clearly represents the Vermillion Bird (zhuque) of the South, which is associated with the element fire and with the force of yang. The cosmological concept of yin and yang and the five elements, associated with the directions (plus the centre), was one of the foundations of Daoist immortality rites.

Lot 19|An Exceptionally Rare Jadeite-Green Glazed Jar and Cover Ming Dynasty, Yongle Period

Size: 12 cm

  • An important Asian private collection.
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 8th October 2009, lot 1624. (Sold for HK$9,844,000)

Estimate: HK$10,000,000 - 15,000,000
Hammer price: HK$14,500,000
Price realised: HK$17,720,000

The auctioneer started the bidding at HK$6m and received 17 bids. The jar was sold for HK$17.72m to the bidder with a paddle number of L0077. The buyer also acquired a Ming imperial blue and white glazed ‘dragon’ bowl.

The present jar, which was probably designed to hold chess pieces, may have been destined for the Emperor’s private quarters towards the back of the Forbidden City. Such pieces were made with the greatest care, in very small numbers.

Many different glaze colours were experimented with at the imperial kilns during this period, and even closely related, yet clearly distinguishable shades could be created with daunting precision. No less than three types of pale greenish glazes, for example, appear to have been developed and employed side by side in the Yongle reign, all of which look rather different in real life, but less so in illustrations. In the West all three are thus generally referred to as ‘wintergreen’. In China, however, they are clearly differentiated by different terms.

The bluish-green glaze of the present is in China called cuiqing, which is used to denote any kind of blue green reminiscent of the bird’s plumage, for example, that of a kind of green bamboo, or that of jadeite. What in China is generally called ‘wintergreen’ (dongqing), but also ‘Eastern green’ (dongqing written with a different dong character), is a more typical celadon colour, more yellowish and less glassy, probably intended to imitate Longquan celadon, which is known from Yongle stem bowls. Finally, a paler, more watery, bluish-tinged glaze is seen on some deep conical bowls with incised lotus scrolls, which have been attributed to various fifteenth-century periods and in China are now generally dated to the Yongle reign. That glaze is called qingbai (‘bluish- or greenish-white’), thus again relating it to a ware of the past.

When this jar was first offered at Sotheby’s Hong Kong, it was classified under the ‘wintergreen’ category. The jar sold for HK$9.84m. But for this time, the auction house believes it is of ‘jadeite-green’ glaze.

Lot 31 | An Exceptional and Rare Heirloom 'Jian' Silver-Streaked 'Nogime Temmoku' Tea Bowl Southern Song Dynasty

Size: 12cm

  • Collection of Peter Hariolf Plesch (1918-2013), until 1959.
  • Sotheby's London, 17th March, 1959, lot 7.
  • Bluett & Sons Ltd, London, 1959.
  • Collection of Roger Pilkington (1928-1969), from 1959, and thence by descent.
  • Sotheby's Hong Kong, 6th April 2016, lot 12.

Estimate: HK$12,000,000 - 16,000,000
Hammer price: HK$8,000,000
Price realised: HK$9,855,000

Song ware has gained increasing popularity in the ceramic market in recent years. Black ‘jian’ ware produced from Fujian is thus receiving more attention than ever. This ‘jian’ tea bowl was hammered down at HK$8m, lower than its estimate between HK$12m-16m, but its value has increased 37% compared to its price sold in 2016.  

In Japan, ‘Jian’ ware tea bowls were revered virtually from the moment they left the kilns in the Song dynasty (960-1279), and the Japanese term temmoku (or tenmoku) is now universally accepted for this group of black-glazed bowls, as lasting testimony of this reverence.

In Japan, where whipped tea continues to be ritually prepared and consumed in the Tea Ceremony, black ‘Jian’ tea bowls became associated with monasteries in the Tianmu (Japanese: temmoku) mountain range in Lin’an county, north Zhejiang province. Temmoku tea bowls were probably brought to Japan together with Fujian tea by Buddhist monks visiting Chinese monasteries in the Song dynasty. They are still worshipped in Japan today, several of them having gained the rank of National Treasures.

‘Jian’ ware became known in the West through the efforts of James Marshall Plumer (1899-1960), an American who in the 1930s worked at the Fuzhou Office of the Chinese Maritime Customs and fell in love with the black tea bowls offered in the city’s antique shops. He was the first to locate the kilns in the region of Shuiji and through his teaching and a posthumously published survey made the ware widely known, well beyond the circles of tea lovers in China and Japan.

Lot 46|A Fine and Extremely Rare Imperial Blue and Brown Glazed ‘Dragon’ Bowl Ming Dynasty, Hongwu Period

Size: 20.5 cm
Estimate: HK$8,000,000 - 12,000,000
Hammer price: HK$7,000,000
Price realised: HK$8,645,000

This bowl, impressed with five-clawed dragons and glazed in cobalt blue and iron brown, appears to be unique, but it belongs to a miniscule group of bi-chrome glazed porcelains with anhua designs, among the earliest with coloured glazes. Pieces of the group are variously attributed to the late Yuan dynasty (1279-1368) or the Hongwu reign (1368-1398) of the Ming dynasty (1368-1644).

To apply two differently coloured glazes on the inside and the outside of a vessel would seem a highly complex manner of treating a vessel. It was hardly ever attempted either before or after, and only a few exceptions come to mind.

There are few surviving examples similar to this bowl, including the followings:

  • A blue-and-brown stem cup | The British Museum
  • A blue-and-brown dish | The British Museum
  • A blue-and-brown glazed bowl | Nanjing Museum
  • A blue-and-brown stem cup | The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Missouri, the United States
  • A red dish (with blue glaze outside and red glaze inside)| Once kept in the Idemitsu Museum of Art, Tokyo. Sold in a London auction in 1976

Auction summary
Auction house: Sotheby’s Hong Kong
Sale: Monochrome II
Sale date: 9 October 2020
Lots offered: 123
Sold: 83
Unsold: 40
Sell-through rate: 67%
Sale total: HK$341,654,900