Western tastes elevated Chinese huanghuali furniture

NEW YORK – So rare that it rivals gems and precious metals in value, huanghuali, a type of rosewood, was among the tropical hardwoods found in old-growth forests in the extreme south of the Chinese Empire.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, toward the end of the great Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the highly desirable wood was used for elegant furniture forms – chairs, stools, tables and graceful canopy beds.

This 16th century huanghuali canopy bed with silk gauze is actually an intimate room setting. Within the enclosure, the occupant could entertain friends with tea or issue orders to servants before arising for the day. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

This 16th century huanghuali canopy bed with silk gauze is actually an intimate room setting. Courtesy Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri

In the 21st century, genuine Ming huanghuali designs have been keenly sought after, especially by wealthy Asian collectors. Adding to the market scramble is that fact that many of the best pieces have long been ensconced in the permanent collections of major museums, East and West. As values climbed, modern reproductions of rosewood from Southeast Asia and Africa began to appear on the market. To guarantee the age of their purchases, discriminating buyers pursued pieces with long histories and impeccable provenance from established Western collections.

When well-vetted examples have appeared on the market, the prices realized have been spectacular.

A massive and rare huanghuali recessed-leg painting table from China’s 17th century Ming dynasty sold for $3,525,000 in 2015 as part of the Ellsworth ‘Masterworks’ sale. The form has been widely copied through the centuries, but only a period table of this excellence would merit such an exceptional price. Courtesy Christie’s New York

A massive and rare huanghuali recessed-leg painting table from China’s 17th century Ming dynasty sold for $3,525,000 as part of the Ellsworth ‘Masterworks’ sale. The form has been widely copied through the centuries, but only a period table of this excellence would merit such an exceptional price. Courtesy Christie’s New York

In 2015, Christie’s in New York offered the collections of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth (1929-2014) in a series of sales. A New York art dealer, Hatfield had a dedicated interest in Chinese antiquities and was the author of Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples of the Ming and Early Ch’ing Dynasties (1970). In the March 18 sale of “Masterworks” from The Collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, an important set of four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, Ming dynasty, 17th century, sold for $9,685,000, far beyond the $1.2 million high estimate.

While bidding today flows from Asia across the Pacific, 20th century Western scholars played key roles in the appreciation and preservation of huanghuali wood artifacts, eventually contributing to the popularity such furniture enjoys at present. German-American academic Gustav Ecke (1896-1971) took up a teaching post at a Chinese university in the 1920s. A growing interest in his cultural surroundings led him to work with fellow scholars to record historic architecture and classical furniture. He was especially fascinated by the clean lines of Ming-style hardwood examples, which many families were selling off during the difficult circumstances of the period. His important volume, Chinese Domestic Furniture in Photographs and Measured Drawings, is a classic reference in the field.

This important set of four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, Ming Dynasty, 17th century, sold at Christie’s New York in March 2015 for $9,685,000. The elegant chairs were among the ‘Masterworks’ in the renowned collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, who had acquired them before 1971. Courtesy Christie’s New York

This important set of four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, Ming Dynasty, 17th century, sold at Christie’s New York for $9,685,000. The elegant chairs were among the ‘Masterworks’ in the renowned collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, who had acquired them before 1971. Courtesy Christie’s New York

The Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., has one of the greatest collections of Chinese art and antiquities in the world, thanks to the efforts of its early curator and eventual director, Laurence Sickman (1907-1988). Trained at Harvard, the scholar traveled around China in the 1930s, during a time of great political unrest, buying up treasures and shipping them back to the United States. Among them were paintings purchased from the last Chinese Emperor Pu-Yi, who had taken personal possessions with him when he fled Peking (modern Beijing). The collection contains excellent examples of huanghuali furniture, including a spectacular 16th century canopy bed from which a Chinese lady once held court.

Dr. Colin Mackenzie, senior curator of Chinese art at the museum, explained why huanghuali is so prized: “It’s very precious because the wood itself is wonderful. What family it belongs to botanically – there’s some debate about that. You can call it a member of the rosewood family. In 17th-century science, they did not have the botanical classifications we have now, but they knew the qualities of the honey-colored wood with a beautiful grain, not nearly as in-your-face as the rosewood used in Western furniture.”

Although not antique, this pair of large, Chinese Ming-style huanghuali stacked wood cabinets of tall rectangular form, 94 inches high – sold for $33,500 at Chait in 2014. Courtesy I.M. Chait Auctioneers, Beverly Hills, Calif.

Although not antique, this pair of large, Chinese Ming-style huanghuali stacked wood cabinets of tall rectangular form, 94 inches high – sold for $33,500 at I.M. Chait. Courtesy I.M. Chait Auctioneers, Beverly Hills, Calif.

“Huanghuali wood actually comes from areas right in the very far south of China, on the borders with Southeast Asia, so it’s a tropical hardwood. It’s very hard and takes this wonderful polish, so it was valued for its intrinsic qualities, the wonderful color, patina, and subtle grain – and then of course for its rarity as well,” Mackenzie continued. “Although there are earlier references, it only becomes popular in the mid-second half of the 16th century; there’s an alliterative quote from an official who says in his youth he didn’t see much of it, but now it’s become very fashionable. Supplies ran out in the early 18th century, and you don’t really get huanghuali again until the 20th century, when new supplies were found in Southeast Asia.”

This antique pair of Chinese carved huanghuali wood armchairs with intricately carved backsplat and curvilinear arms ending in a scrolled flourish brought $43,760 at I.M. Chait in 2013. Courtesy I.M. Chait Auctioneers, Beverly Hills, Calif.

This antique pair of Chinese carved huanghuali wood armchairs with intricately carved backsplat and curvilinear arms ending in a scrolled flourish brought $43,760 in an I.M. Chait sale. Courtesy I.M. Chait Auctioneers, Beverly Hills, Calif.

Mackenzie notes the crucial role Westerners played in popularizing huanghuali styles in the 20th century. At the beginning of that century, Chinese collecting was focused on antique black and red lacquered furniture, which had been highly prized by emperors and nobles in the early dynasties. He says, “Our fascination with huanghuali is the result of Western taste, even though the Chinese are paying astronomical prices for it. It’s the result of foreigners living in Beijing including Laurence Sickman, who appreciated huanghuali because of its Modernist feel.”

“There was a shift in Western taste which began earlier with the Bauhaus. Western visitors, responding to that, discovered huanghuali furniture as something that was modern before Bauhaus. It was the lightness of form, the efficiency of construction which used no nails, occasionally there are wooden pins – all put together with very accurately cut joints and therefore theoretically the pieces could be dismantled for transportation. I was looking at the construction of some of our chairs. The wood is not bent – it’s just carved out of solid wood. They spared no expense in that regard. They look light, but they’re incredibly solid. These visiting western scholars and curators appreciated this furniture for the qualities we still celebrate today – the wonderful design and efficiency of construction.”

A modern Chinese-style table and four chairs of Vietnamese huanghuali, the humpback stretcher apron accented with ruyi head spacers, sold for a strong hammer price of $150,000 at Clars in 2014. Clars Auction Gallery, Oakland, Calif.

A modern Chinese-style table and four chairs of Vietnamese huanghuali, the humpback stretcher apron accented with ruyi head spacers, sold for a strong hammer price of $150,000 at Clars. Clars Auction Gallery, Oakland, Calif.

The Chinese market demand for hardwood furniture in Ming Dynasty styles has stimulated the efforts of workshops, principally in Asia, which attempt to reproduce classical forms that will pass as period examples. Sources for huanghuali and similar types of rosewood have been discovered in Southeast Asia, notably Vietnam, and Africa. Whether the removal of such wood is ethical varies from site to site. Savvy buyers have learned to distinguish the more recently cut wood from older patinas. As mentioned above, serious collectors prefer to buy from early, established collections in the West. Catalog entries frequently note when and where lots were acquired. On the other hand, some of the recent reproductions are attractive and well made. They can bring substantial prices from buyers who want the look and the appearance of this remarkable Asian hardwood.

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