Timeless Elegance –
On the Collection of Rare
Ming Dynasty Furniture

Dr. Arne Sildatke, Senior Specialist Asian Art

Dr. Arne Sildatke, Senior Specialist Asian Art

The art of Chinese furniture craft soared to new heights during the Ming dynasty. Pieces of furniture were finally emancipated into stand-alone works of art in a spatial context, meaning that special care was taken with their design and construction. Furniture became a mark of distinction, which was used to indicate social status or personal wealth. Social boundaries, as well as societal and technical developments led to this cultural bloom, which manifested itself in the Chinese furniture we still see today.

Auctionata was delighted to present an auction featuring the finest Chinese furniture, which was one of three auctions in the framework of Asian art that were taking place in December 2014. At the core of this auction stood a collection of rare Ming dynasty furniture, which had originated from the private collection of a German diplomat. The former owner, a proven expert and collector of art from the Middle Kingdom, brought these items of furniture to Germany in the early 20th century. There they have remained, in possession of the family, until entering the art market for the very first time during the Auctionata auction on December 11, 2014.

Gu Hongzhong (910-980 A.D.): 'Night Revels'

Chinese furniture, particularly that of the Ming dynasty, only gained its status as a soughtafter collector’s item in the West at the turn of the 20th century, when European and American art aficionados developed an interest for this aspect of Chinese art. While the Chinese had continually held fine carpentry craft in high regard, the resulting items of furniture were now also sought after by Western collectors on a large scale. It was the scientific research of German art historian Gustav Ecke (1896-1971) in particular, which spread awareness of Chinese furniture to a larger circle of experts and collectors. Ecke’s groundbreaking publication entitled ‘Chinese Domestic Furniture‘, which he wrote while in war-torn China in 1944 under extremely harsh conditions, was the first ever book to take a scientific approach to Chinese furniture [1]. In the second half of the 20th century, it was mainly American collectors, museums and researchers who contributed to the exploration of Chinese furniture craft. Particularly, the stylistic attributes and characteristics prompted this fascination for early Chinese furniture. Its commonly reduced, almost sculpturally stylistic form and focus on the highest possible level of technical and aesthetic accomplishment provided a gateway to modern-contemporary interiors, allowing the items of furniture to present a timelessly elegant quality together with modern art in the context of a collection.

Impressive Zitan Altar Table QIAOTOUAN, 16th/17th C

The collecting tradition described here also encapsulates the items of rare Ming-period furniture featuring in our auction on December 11. Among these items are rarities of the finest quality, which are extremely difficult to come by in this density and number, as they hail from a collection which was slowly and carefully expanded and nurtured over many decades. Some of these items have already been scientifically examined by their previous owner, thereby supporting the early age determination of this unique collection.

Amongst the outstanding highlights in the auction was a Zitan Altar Table from the 16th/17th century. The altar table is already impressive, merely through the fact that it is over 3 meters long. Socalled altar tables, or Qiáotóuàn (翘头案) in Chinese, served as representative furniture and were often placed against the back wall of traditional entrance halls [2]. The immense dimensions of this table and the use of valuable and esteemed zitan wood imply that this item hails from a palace or a high-ranking household. A similar table of zitan wood can be found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York [3].

Very Rare Huanghuali Daybed LUOHANCHUANG, 17th Century

A further item of museum quality was the large Huanhuali Daybed from the late Ming dynasty. This unusual item of furniture is characterized by its extremely elegant proportions, which emphasize the excellent and expressive grain of the fine wood. The original back and arm rests display the characteristic, almost landscape-like appearance of the wood, which makes it so sought after by collectors [4]. The back and arm rests feature finely carved reliefs with pairs of Chilong Dragons with Lingzhi mushrooms, which symbolize long life and were highly popular decorative elements during the Ming dynasty [5].

The Chinese name for this furniture type, Luohanchuang (罗汉床), literally translated means ‘Bed of a Luohan (Buddhist enlightened one)’, a term which was only used for this type of bed at a later date. According to old portrayals, this type of furniture was used for relaxed get-togethers and receiving guests and visitors [6]. Resting beds in this form and quality count among the rarest and most extravagant items of furniture of the late Ming dynasty, and can only be found in a few, first-class museum collections [7].

Huanghuali and Burl Wood “Giant’s Arm Braces” Table, 15th C.

An especially fine and early example of Ming-period furniture was the rectangular Huanghuali Table with Inlaid Burl Wood Plate, which came with a scientific assessment of age determination. The elegant proportions and the burl wood tabletop let us conclude that this table was once used to present works of art, as burl wood was commonly used as a background for artefacts due to its dark, expressive grain.

Alongside the yellow sheen of the Huanghuali wood and the comparatively darker burl wood plate, it is the four curved support bases that connect the legs to the underside of the tabletop on each side, which produce the characteristic appearance. This construction, which serves to stabilize the table, is known in expert circles as ‘Giant's Arm Braces’. This term is a Western translation of the Chinese expression ‘bawang chen’ (霸王撑), a figurative representation that refers to the additional stability of this construction.

Pair of Huanghuali ‘Yokeback’ Chairs, 16th/17th Century

This extraordinary selection of Chinese furniture was rounded off with many other interesting items, including numerous chairs. The pair of Huanghuali ‘Yokeback‘ Chairs with ornamentally carved aprons represent a classic furniture type, which can be considered iconic due to their characteristic appearance.

Traditionally, ‘Yokeback‘ chairs (Sichutouguanmaoyi in Chinese), also known as ‘official's hat chairs’, were reserved for important guests or high-ranking family members. Even when the chair was covered with a beautifully embroidered silk throw, which was the custom at that time, both of the curved protruding edges of the backrest remained visible. They elongated the silhouette of the upper body of whomever sat on the chair, thereby bestowing a special dignity by way of visual accentuation [8].

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[1] cf. Gustav Ecke, Chinese domestic furniture. Peking 1944 (Rutland 1962).
[2] cf. Handler, Austere Luminosity of Chinese Classical Furniture, University of California Press 2001, S. 224-238. Ferner vgl. Jacobsen, Classical Chinese Furniture in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis 1999, S. 126f.
[3] http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/39612
Siehe auch einen sehr ähnlichen Altartisch, allerdings aus Huanghuali Holz, ebenfalls im Metropolitan Museum:http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/42735
[4] Die elegante Form von dieser Art Ruhebetten in Verbindung mit expressiv gemasertem Huanghuali-Holz wird in Ming-zeitlichen Texten vielfach gelobt. Vgl. Berliner [Hg.], Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th Centuries, Boston 1996, S. 118f.
[5] cf. ein weiteres Ruhebett, ebenfalls mit Drachen-Reliefs, in der Sammlung des Minneapolis Institute of Arts (https://collections.artsmia.org/index.php?page=detail&id=5183). Siehe auch: Jacobsen, Classical Chinese Furniture in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis 1999, S. 84.
[6] cf. Handler, Comfort and Joy: A Couch Bed for Day and Night, in: Journal of the Classical Chinese Furniture Society, Winter 1991, S. 4-19. Siehe auch die Darstellung auf der berühmten Malerei „Gu Hongzhong nächtliche Feierlichkeiten“ aus der Song-Dynastie. (http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f8/Gu_Hongzhong%27s_Night_Revels_1.jpg)
[7] http://www.metmuseum.org/collection/the-collection-online/search/42745
Siehe auch: Jacobsen, Classical Chinese Furniture in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Minneapolis 1999, S. 84f.
[8] cf. Berliner [Hg.], Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th Centuries, Boston 1996, 104f.