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5 minutes with... A rare Qing Dynasty zitan side table

Chinese art specialist Michelle Cheng discusses the ’quiet, subtle grace’ of this superb piece from the Virata Family Collection of Asian Art, offered in New York on 16 March

‘There were so many impressive works in the Virata house that, initially, I did not spend a lot of time examining this work,’ recalls Chinese art specialist Michelle Cheng of the Philippines-based collection of Marie Theresa L. Virata. Assembled over the course of four decades, the collection comprises superb examples of classical Chinese furniture, ceramics and carpets, Japanese screens and decorative arts.

Over the past 12 months the specialist has had the opportunity to get to know the collection — offered at Christie’s in New York on 16 March — much better, however, and her appreciation of this small table has grown exponentially. ‘I’m drawn to the flowing line of the apron, the elegant splay of the legs and the shimmering quality of the wood,’ she says. ‘I also like its diminutive size. The table has a quiet, subtle grace; it’s not overwhelming and I love the delicate features.’

Michelle Cheng examimes the very rare narrow zitan side table, Tiaozhuo. Early Qing Dynasty, 17th-18th century. 30⅛ in (76.5 cm) high, 35¼ in (89.5 cm) wide, 11¼ in (28.6 cm) deep. Estimate $250,000-350,000. This lot is offered in The Marie Theresa L. Virata Collection of Asian Art A Family Legacy on 16 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Michelle Cheng examimes the very rare narrow zitan side table, Tiaozhuo. Early Qing Dynasty, 17th-18th century. 30⅛ in (76.5 cm) high, 35¼ in (89.5 cm) wide, 11¼ in (28.6 cm) deep. Estimate: $250,000-350,000. This lot is offered in The Marie Theresa L. Virata Collection of Asian Art: A Family Legacy on 16 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

The specialist explains that when considering a piece of Chinese furniture you should always think about proportion, quality of material and craftsmanship — and this table ranks at the highest level of all three categories. 

‘The calibre of the wood is exceptional,’ Cheng points out. ‘It has a lustrous, satiny quality, and a deep rich purple colour. As a material, raw zitan can have a lot of flaws in the wood, which are inherent to the tree. To find zitan furniture constructed from relatively flawless wood is very rare, and it suggests that whoever commissioned the table not only had the funds to acquire such luxurious materials, but also access to the source of high-quality zitan.’

‘To construct something of this nature is extremely complex... it's a testament to the technical abilities of Qing Dynasty carpenters’

Classical Chinese furniture is constructed using a mortise and tenon system, whereby joints lock into place. It is these intricate joints, rather than glue or nails, that hold a piece of furniture together, and their complexity — invisible on the exterior — helps to give each work a seamless appearance. 

‘To construct something of this nature is extremely challenging,’ the specialist observes. ‘Understanding how everything fits together, and having the skill to carve these very precise and small joints, are testament to the superior technical abilities of the carpenters of the early Qing Dynasty.’

A very rare narrow zitan side table, Tiaozhuo. Early Qing Dynasty, 17th-18th century. 30⅛ in (76.5 cm) high, 35¼ in (89.5 cm) wide, 11¼ in (28.6 cm) deep. Estimate $250,000-350,000. This lot is offered in The Marie Theresa L. Virata Collection of Asian Art A Family Legacy on 16 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A very rare narrow zitan side table, Tiaozhuo. Early Qing Dynasty, 17th-18th century. 30⅛ in (76.5 cm) high, 35¼ in (89.5 cm) wide, 11¼ in (28.6 cm) deep. Estimate: $250,000-350,000. This lot is offered in The Marie Theresa L. Virata Collection of Asian Art: A Family Legacy on 16 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Cheng says she is particularly impressed by the number of pieces within the Virata Family collection that have superb provenance. ‘The family wanted to own important furniture that belonged to distinguished collectors and scholars in the field of Chinese furniture,’ she says, noting that pieces have been acquired from such distinguished figures as Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, Nicholas Grindley, Grace Wu Bruce and Charles Wong, as well as Gustav Ecke and Christian Humann of the Pan-Asian Collection. ‘It shows their dedication to acquiring the best examples, but also their desire to be a part of this rich collecting tradition.’