Even at the height of his long, highly distinguished and demanding legal career, Robert C. Tang could be found visiting his favourite antiques shops in Hong Kong’s Central district on an almost daily basis. During the 1980s and 1990s, when he served as chairman of the Hong Kong Bar Association and then later as Senior Counsel (Hong Kong), there was a steady influx of huanghuali furniture coming into Hong Kong, and Tang was very often able to unearth something that piqued his interest. Sometimes, he would even return to a shop more than once on the same day.
‘I did not have a formal collecting philosophy,’ he explains. ‘I bought what I could afford. Every piece of furniture had to fit into my home, or office, and had to have a function.’
On 30 May 2023, rare examples of exquisite furniture collected by Tang and his wife Cissy Lam will be offered in A Connoisseur’s Studio — The Cissy and Robert Tang Collection of Chinese Classical Furniture at Christie’s in Hong Kong.
Tang’s connoisseurship is highly regarded: not only has he served on the board of the Hong Kong Palace Museum, but he also represented the Min Chiu Society — a group of high-profile individuals dedicated to showcasing internationally acclaimed private collections of Chinese art — as chairman between 2007 and 2009.
Tang, who became a a judge in 2004 and retired from the Hong Kong Court of Final Appeal in 2018, assembled his collection with the help of trusted friends such as the pre-eminent scholar and collector Robert Ellsworth and the dealer Cola Ma. Tang was an admirer of several pieces kept by Ellsworth in his Hong Kong home at New World Apartments, and the legendary dealer made good on his promise to sell those pieces to Justice Tang when he quit Hong Kong some two decades later.
Among these was the pair of intricately carved huanghuali chairs pictured above, one with a ‘qilin’ (the legendary Chinese unicorn) carved on the backrest, the other with two other mythical beasts. Ellsworth had included them in the 1991 exhibition Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration at the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., at which time they were dated to the middle-Ming dynasty. Later scholarship redated the chairs to the 17th century.
Another pair of chairs — each with a different animal carved in openwork on the backrest and held in a private Asian collection — has been discussed as possibly belonging to the same set of eight chairs, with the animals depicted on the medallions perhaps hierarchical symbols for seating positions according to rank or gender. This latter pair of chairs, once part of the collection of Gangolf Geis, realised $343,500 — almost double the high estimate — when auctioned at Christie’s in New York in September 2003.
The pair of elegant 17th-century huanghuali bookcases pictured below have been widely admired and included in many exhibitions and publications. The first was purchased directly from Cola Ma; Justice Tang later had the opportunity, through his dealer, Jim Lally, to purchase the other when it was offered as part of the Dr Yip Collection at Christie’s in New York in 2002.
The bookcases might be referred to as ‘open shelf stands’, because objects other than books would also have been placed on them. No other pairs of shelf stands or bookcases of this kind are known.
Robert Tang has collected in several fields, acquiring pieces out of intellectual curiosity rather than as investments. In addition to classical furniture, he has also formed collections of Chinese early jades, archaic bronzes, Song ceramics, Buddhist sculpture and modern paintings.
‘As a collector, I have purchased pieces I found attractive, that appealed to me,’ he says. ‘I made decisions quickly, almost immediately, because if I waited, there was a strong possibility the piece would no longer be available the following day.’
Among all his pieces of furniture, Justice Tang is particularly fond of the Qing dynasty huanghuali half-moon table pictured above. The rare form, with its semicircular top and fluid lines, is decorated only on the dragon-shaped spandrels that support the slender cabriole legs. It once graced the entrance hall of Justice Tang’s home.
As their children have grown and now live abroad, Robert and Cissy Tang are planning to downsize, and to divide their time between their home in Hong Kong and overseas travels. They offer this collection in the hope that the pieces will feature in new memories for others.
Sign up today
Christie’s Online Magazine delivers our best features, videos, and auction news to your inbox every week
‘I have never grown tired of the pieces in my collection; each time I look at an object, I see what initially attracted me to it,’ Justice Tang explains. ‘However, the time has now come to pass on some of these pieces to the next generation of collectors.’