ASHEVILLE, N.C. – Classical Chinese furniture deaccessioned from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts produced some sensational results at a dedicated Asian Art sale held by Brunk Auctions on October 19. The pieces had been given to the museum by collectors Price and Elaine Rogers in the late 20th century. Most had labels suggesting they had been bought in China in the 1950s.
A pair of stools fashioned in the revered Chinese hardwood huanghuali – probably in the late Ming period – raced away from an estimate of $1,500-$2,500 to hammer for $235,000 and sell for $300,800 with buyer’s premium.
Seats in China were ranked via a strict hierarchy. Chairs were most important and reserved for the master of the house and senior guests on formal occasions. Stools, which typically followed contemporaneous table designs, were used in more relaxed gatherings.
The design and construction of this pair suggest a 17th century date. According to a label affixed to one, they were purchased in China (Beijing) in 1953 from dealer Caroline Bieber and pictured in the influential 1948 book she co-authored with the American orientalist George Kates, Chinese Household Furniture.
Modest estimates on the Rogers collection furniture led to a number of similar results. Hammered at $120,000 and sold for $153,600 with buyer’s premium, many times the $5,000 top estimate, was a Qing huanghuali cupboard fitted with shelves and two drawers with paktong alloy hardware and a dragon carved serpentine skirt.
From the collection of a consignor described as “a Southern gentleman” were two late Ming or Qing ritual bronzes — a censer and an incense tool vase — made either for export to the Islamic market or for a Chinese mosque. They follow traditional local forms embellished with Arabic calligraphy. Like many bronzes of the 17th century and later, they have apocryphal marks for the Xuande emperor (1425-1435), the 5th ruler of the Ming dynasty, whose short reign was viewed as something of a golden era by subsequent generations. In particular, it was a time of relative prosperity for Islam in China, with many influential Muslim advisors, eunuchs and envoys serving in the imperial court.
Today, as many pieces have been lost or destroyed, these Islamic market wares are much admired among the Muslim Chinese community. Just how admired was seen when these two vessels, estimated at $600-$800, hammered at $230,000 and sold for $294,400 with buyer’s premium.
A baluster-form jar with a domed cover and gilt-on-turquoise decoration came by descent from Wilhelmine Kirby Waller. She was the granddaughter of Thomas Ellis Kirby, founding partner of the American Art Association, among the first dedicated fine art auction houses in the United States. The 11in high jar, with a red six-character Qianlong mark and probably of the period, had breaks and repairs to both sides of the flared lip. However, the winning bid of $85,000, which totaled $108,800 with buyer’s premium, was more than 10 times the low estimate.
A 7in cylindrical brush pot or bitong from the Transitional period with blue and white narrative decoration and incised anhua bands was estimated at $1,200-$1,800 and hammered for $9,500, or $12,160 with buyer’s premium, from a LiveAuctioneers bidder. Consigned by a vendor in California, it had a label for Elinor Gordon (1919-2009), the well-known Pennsylvania dealer in Chinese porcelain.