A Link Between Ancient Literati and Modern Life—Piper Tseng on her Classical Chinese furniture collection
As Christie’s Hong Kong prepares for the sale of Rich Golden Hues And Graceful Forms - Classical Chinese Furniture From The Tseng Collection this autumn, the collector Piper Tseng talks about her collecting journey and the elegant beauty of huanghuali furniture
“My passion for classical Chinese furniture was born from the environment I grew up in, as I was always surrounded by classical furniture pieces, Chinese calligraphy and paintings at home,” said Piper Tseng. “In 1994, when I was looking to furnish my new home, I naturally turned to the antique market.” After doing some initial research, she learnt that the highest quality huanghuali furniture was beyond her initial budget. If she was going to invest in Ming huanghuali furniture, she recognized the importance of researching the topic thoroughly, it was then that she decided to embark on her collecting journey nearly three decades ago.
Piper noted, ‘As a graduate in history, I knew that ancient artifacts rarely survived to be admired or even used in modern times. Yet Chinese furniture was an exception as it remains the most concrete legacy left by the Chinese literati and thus carried a profound piece of their rich history. I appreciated the taste, style and aesthetics of the scholars from the Ming dynasty, and I see classical Chinese furniture as a link between their ancient world and that of today.’
A very rare and large stone-inset huanghuali yokeback armchair, sichutou guanmaoyi. Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century. 45 ¼ in (115 cm) high. Sold for HK$11,250,000. A magnificent large huanghuali recessed trestle-leg table, qiaotou’an, 17th century. 108 ⅛ in (274.5 cm) wide. Sold for HK$34,050,000. A rare large huanghuali balance stand, tianpingjia, 17th century. 30¼ in (77 cm) high. Sold for HK$2,142,000. A very rare huanghuali recessed-leg footstool, jiaota. Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century. 28 in (71 cm) wide. Sold for HK$1,071,000. All sold in Rich Golden Hues And Graceful Forms - Classical Chinese Furniture From The Tseng Collection on 29 November 2022 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Why does Piper focus on Ming dynasty huanghuali furniture? The collector explained, “I am fascinated by the structures and forms of furniture pieces. Classical furniture, porcelain and paintings from the late Ming period embody the sense of purity, refinement and elegance, the ideal aesthetic of the time; while the aesthetic from the Qing dynasty was more ornate in design. I love the clean and archaic style of the Ming period that highlights the patterns within the wood grains and the honey-coloured patina without further embellishments. Pure and elegant in its form, classic huanghuali furniture displays a shimmering lustre and beautiful, clean lines.”
Since the very beginning of her collecting journey, Piper's goal has been to live with her collection. “Every piece in my collection was carefully chosen not only for its functionality but I also wanted to acquire rare pieces that I could discuss with my guests, many of whom shared my interest in the subject.”
An important and extremely rare three-legged huanghuali lampstand, sanzudengtai. Ming dynasty, early 17th century; 63 in (162 cm) high. Sold for HK$8,568,000. A very rare pair of inlaid huanghuali ‘southern official’s hat’ armchairs, nanguanmaoyi. Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century; 49⅝ in (126 cm) high. Sold for HK$17,250,000. A very rare huanghuali rectangular incense stand with serpentine panel and drawer, xiangji. 17th century; 29⅛ in (74 cm) high. Sold for HK$24,450,000. All sold in Rich Golden Hues And Graceful Forms - Classical Chinese Furniture From The Tseng Collection on 29 November 2022 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
The Tseng Collection has been exhibited internationally over the last 20 years, at the National Museum of History, Taipei, the Crow Museum of Asian Art, Dallas, Texas and the Los Angeles County Museum (LACMA) to wide acclaim. It was when the LACMA closed for major renovations in 2019 and all lenders were asked to remove their collections from the premises that Piper decided to consign the collection to Christie’s. “The time has come to part with some of the pieces. I also want to share my passion with other collectors. I have felt the joy of sharing the collection through curating the various exhibitions and contributing to the catalogues. Collecting has been a journey of self-discovery for me, the purpose of being a collector.”
Piper admires every piece in her collection, but she is particularly fond of a marvelous discovery 24 years ago. “When I first started collecting, I was drawn by the minimalist appeal of classical daybeds (Ta) with cabriole legs, and saw an exemplary piece in Peter Lai's gallery though, unfortunately, it was already sold. In 1998, when I was in New York for an auction, Nick Grindley took me to a warehouse in Queens. As soon as he opened the door, in the dim lighting I saw the daybed that had impressed me with its grace and imposing beauty in Peter's shop. I was overwhelmed with excitement and decided to buy the bed then and there. I still remember the thrill of seeing this gorgeous bed again years later, but this time being able to add it to my collection.”
An important and rare huanghuali towel rack and washbasin, mianpenjia. Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century. 70 ⅛ in (178 cm) high. Sold for HK$9,450,000. A very rare huanghuali ‘cabriole-leg’ daybed, ta. Ming dynasty, 16th-17th century. 83½ in (212 cm) wide. Sold for HK$6,300,000. A very rare huanghuali circular stool. 17th century. 19¼ in (49 cm) high. Sold for HK$3,150,000. All sold in Rich Golden Hues And Graceful Forms - Classical Chinese Furniture From The Tseng Collection on 29 November 2022 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
Christie's landmark sale, Important Chinese Furniture. Formerly the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture Collection sale in September 1996 was an unforgettable event for Piper. With Grace Wu Bruce as her advisor, the collector developed a detailed strategy before attending the sale. However, the intense bidding in the saleroom and record-breaking prices was unexpected, and she regretfully only took home four lots from the auction, leaving behind many much admired pieces. Years later, she was surprised to learn that she was the second most successful buyer at the sale behind the collector Bruce Dayton.
“Collectors are greedy and want to acquire all the great pieces. I only knew how lucky I was to be able to participate in that very special sale years later.” Two of the lots Piper acquired at the sale are a beautifully carved huanghuali towel rack and washbasin, Mianpenjia with stylistic and exquisite patterns, and a magnificent huanghuali circular incense stand, Xiangji that embody the classical aesthetics preferred by the Chinese literati. Both will appear in the upcoming Rich Golden Hues and Graceful Forms - Classical Chinese Furniture From The Tseng Collection sale.
A magnificent huanghuali circular incense stand, xiangji. 17th century. 38⅛ in (97 cm) high. Sold for HK$71,327,500 in Rich Golden Hues And Graceful Forms - Classical Chinese Furniture From The Tseng Collection on 29 November 2022 at Christie’s in Hong Kong
During her collecting journey, Piper has built strong relationships with many renowned antique dealers, including aforementioned Peter Lai, Nick Grindley, Charles Wong and Grace Wu Bruce. She met Curtis Evarts when she visited the Museum of Classical Furniture in Renaissance, California in 1996. Curtis later acted as her advisor in forming her collection.
Gathering after the exhibition opening Splendor of Style: Classical Furniture from the Ming and Qing Dynasties in 1999. Front row left to right: Grace Wu Bruce, Alice Piccus, Sarah Evarts, Lana Kinoshita, Mrs. Man Tong Su Yip, Piper Tseng, Debbie Flacks. Back Row left to right: Dr. S. Y. Yip, Malcom Riddell, Robert Piccus, Marcus Flacks, Curtis Evarts, Jim Kinoshita
“My advice for new collectors is that you should keep listening, exploring and learning in order to develop a system of collecting. It takes time to cultivate a discerning eye. In addition to furniture, you should also study all kinds of artworks, such as archaic jades, porcelain and Chinese calligraphy and paintings, to see their interaction. You should learn with humbleness while exercising your independent judgement, and then build a good relationship with antique dealers and seek their advice. It is important to listen to professional opinions with an open mind and mutual respect and trust in order to ensure a smooth collecting journey.” As a final note, Piper added, “Of course, you have to be quick when you find a great piece, or you are going to miss it forever with regret.”
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