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Classical Chinese furniture — 20 years of great collections

Christie’s has been offering the finest collections of Classical Chinese furniture for more than 20 years. Here, we look at five sales that have helped to create today’s thriving market

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  • 19 September 1996 Formerly the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture Collection

In this landmark sale — arguably the most important collection of Chinese furniture to appear at auction in the 20th century — Christie’s New York offered more than 100 works from the Museum of Classical Chinese furniture in Renaissance, California. The museum no longer exists, but the sale of its treasures — with some items fetching 10 times the pre-sale estimates — helped to establish classical Chinese furniture as a mature international collecting category.

A large rare marble huanghuali and tielimu standing screen, zuopingfeng, 17th century. Sold for $1,102,500 on 19 September 1996 at Christies in New York

A large rare marble huanghuali and tielimu standing screen, zuopingfeng, 17th century. Sold for $1,102,500 on 19 September 1996 at Christie's in New York

Leading the sale was a seven-foot-high 17th-century floor screen made of elaborately carved, pierced and fretworked huanghuali  and tielimu  wood, with a slab of dali  marble — the veining of which resembles a moutain range — at its centre. Now at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the screen achieved $1.1 million, then the highest price realised at auction for any piece of Chinese furniture. A further highlight, a 17th-century huanghuali  yokeback armchair (below), sold for $140,000 — four times its high estimate.

A large huanghuali yokeback armchair, Guanmaoyi, 17th century. Sold for $140,000 on 19 September 1996 at Christies in New York

A large huanghuali yokeback armchair, Guanmaoyi, 17th century. Sold for $140,000 on 19 September 1996 at Christie's in New York

Every one of the 107 Ming- and Qing-dynasty pieces of furniture offered from the Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture found a buyer, with the sale achieving a total of $11.2 million. 

‘Ten years from now, people will be saying, “God, that stuff from Renaissance was just given away,”’ the collector Robert Hatfield Ellsworth told New York  magazine in March 1997. Some 18 years later, Christie’s would also sell Ellsworth’s own collection (see below).

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  • 18 September 1997 The Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Piccus

One year later, on 18 September 1997, Christie’s sale of some 100 lots from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Piccus achieved $2,371,885, confirming the strength of the international market for classical Chinese furniture. 

Amassed over a 30-year period, the collection was made possible by the opening up of China and the flow of fine and rare examples of Chinese furniture into Hong Kong in the early 1980s. Acquisitions were carefully considered: in each case, the couple was drawn to the beauty of the materials used, the quality of grain and colour, the elegance of its design, and the ingenuity of its joinery.

A rare and important pair of huanghuali folding stools, jiaoyi, late 17th- early 18th century. Sold for $321,500 on 18 September 1997 at Christies in New York

A rare and important pair of huanghuali folding stools, jiaoyi, late 17th- early 18th century. Sold for $321,500 on 18 September 1997 at Christie's in New York

The sale’s top lot, a pair of huanghuali  folding stools from the late 17th to the early 18th century (one of the pair shown above), sold for almost double the high estimate, realising $321,500.

A huanghuali three-shelf bookcase, jiage, 17th century. Sold for $244,500 on 18 September 1997 at Christies in New York

A huanghuali three-shelf bookcase, jiage, 17th century. Sold for $244,500 on 18 September 1997 at Christie's in New York

The 17th-century huanghuali  three-shelf bookcase pictured above sold for $244,500, double the high estimate.

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  • 17 March 2015 The Collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth

Over five continuous days in March 2015, Christie’s offered The Collection of Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, the pre-eminent New York dealer of Asian Art and author of one of the first Western texts on the subject, Chinese Furniture: Hardwood Examples from the Ming and Ch’ing Dynasties

Few individuals have made such an invaluable contribution to the study and appreciation of Asian art in the West as Ellsworth, whose collection embraced ancient bronzes and Ming furniture, fine jade, modern Chinese painting, and Himalayan, Indian and Southeast Asian works of art. More than 2,000 objects were offered in the sale, making it the largest collection of Asian Art ever to appear at auction. The Chinese furniture and scholar’s objects alone comprised more than 300 lots.

The top lot of the sale, an extremely rare set of four huanghuali  horseshoe-back armchairs, realised $9,685,000, the highest price ever achieved for a piece of huanghuali  furniture at auction. Several factors set these chairs apart from other horseshoe-back examples: the elegant curve of their crest rails, their exceptionally well-carved hook handles, the three-part backsplat with finely carved openwork panels, and their beautifully figured wood panels suggestive of a landscape. Also in that sale, a massive and very rare huanghuali  recessed-leg painting table (below) realised $3,525,000.

The multi-day sale totalled $134.1 million, making it the most valuable private collection of Asian art ever offered at Christie’s. To date, it remains among the top 10 most valuable collections ever sold at Christie’s in any category.

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  • 16 March 2017 The Marie Theresa L. Virata Collection of Asian Art

The Marie Theresa L. Virata Collection of Asian Art, one of the finest collections of classical Chinese furniture in private hands, was assembled over the course of three generations and also included fine Chinese ceramics and carpets. Over the decades, Marie Theresa Virata developed a close friendship with Robert Ellsworth, who offered advice and guidance on her collecting. 

The 186-lot New York sale, which realised a stunning total of $25,352,750, included exceptional examples in huanghuali  and zitan, the hardwoods most coveted by collectors of Chinese furniture.

A magnificent and important zitan, luohan and luohanchuang bed, 18th century. 29  in (73.7  cm) high, 86½  in (219.7  cm) wide, 50½  in (128.3  cm) deep. Sold for $3,607,500 on 16 March 2017  at Christie’s in New York

A magnificent and important zitan, luohan and luohanchuang bed, 18th century. 29 in (73.7 cm) high, 86½ in (219.7 cm) wide, 50½ in (128.3 cm) deep. Sold for $3,607,500 on 16 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

A very rare huanghuali circular incense stand, xiangji, 16th-17th century. 37½  in (95.3  cm) high, 17¾  in (45.1  cm)  diameter. Sold for $5,847,500 on 16 March 2017  at Christie’s in New York

A very rare huanghuali circular incense stand, xiangji, 16th-17th century. 37½ in (95.3 cm) high, 17¾ in (45.1 cm) diameter. Sold for $5,847,500 on 16 March 2017 at Christie’s in New York

Sale highlights included a very rare huanghuali  circular incense stand, which sold for $5,847,500, and an 18th-century zitan luohan  bed, which achieved $3,607,500.

Incense stands in lacquer and hardwood were produced in the 17th century in a variety of forms, including round, square, hexagonal and octagonal, and were constructed with three, four or five legs. Round lacquer incense stands appear to be the most common examples, and can be seen in Ming-dynasty woodblock prints. In the 18th century, the luohanchuang, or couch bed, was found in the private chambers of women and the studio of literati gentlemen.

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  • Various sale dates The collection of Raymond Hung and Mimi Wong

Together Raymond Hung and Mimi Wong amassed one of the most comprehensive collections of Chinese furniture in Asia. Guided by Robert Ellsworth, the couple made acquisitions primarily in the mid-1980s in Hong Kong, as important examples were emerging from China. In 1998, highlights from the collection were exhibited at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.

A very rare pair of zitan horseshoe-back armchairs, quanyi, 17th18th century. 36 116 in (91.7 cm) high; 25 in (63.5 cm) wide; 22¾ in (58.1 cm) deep. Sold for $1,085,000 on 20-21 March 2014  at Christie’s in New York

A very rare pair of zitan horseshoe-back armchairs, quanyi, 17th/18th century. 36 1/16 in (91.7 cm) high; 25 in (63.5 cm) wide; 22¾ in (58.1 cm) deep. Sold for $1,085,000 on 20-21 March 2014 at Christie’s in New York


A fine large pair of huanghuali round-corner tapered cabinets, yuanjiaogui, Qing dynasty, 17th-18th century. 69¾  in (177.2  cm) high, 36½  in (92.7  cm) wide, 19½  in (49.5  cm) deep (each). Sold for HK$36,100,000 on 29 November 2017  at Christie’s in Hong Kong

A fine large pair of huanghuali round-corner tapered cabinets, yuanjiaogui, Qing dynasty, 17th-18th century. 69¾ in (177.2 cm) high, 36½ in (92.7 cm) wide, 19½ in (49.5 cm) deep (each). Sold for: HK$36,100,000 on 29 November 2017 at Christie’s in Hong Kong

Over the years, a number of works from the collection have been offered at Christie’s. Among the most notable pieces are a very rare pair of zitan  horseshoe-back armchairs, which sold for $1,085,000 in 2014 at Christie's in New York, and a pair of huanghuali  round-corner tapered cabinets, which realised $HK 36,100,000 in November 2017 in Hong Kong.