A Ming-dynasty folding chair

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Fewer than 30 of these horseshoe-back armchairs are known to exist. This one comes to auction on 13 September in New York

Of what furniture remains from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), the folding horseshoe-back armchair is the rarest. Collapsible for ease of transport and compact storage, their complex construction and fragile design made them subject to greater wear and therefore more susceptible to damage.

‘There are Chinese paintings dating to the 12th century showing servants carrying these folding chairs on their backs as they walk through the countryside,’ explains Michelle Cheng, a Chinese works of art specialist at Christie’s in New York. Paintings like this give us an idea of how these chairs were used and handled.

The design is an elite variation of the older and humbler folding stool, called huchuang or ‘barbarian bed’, a reference to its foreign origin. The horseshoe-back design, with its sweeping U-shaped crest rail, is easily adapted to collapsing. When folded, the front seat rail fits snugly within the curved supports of the arms.

A magnificent and very rare huanghuali folding horseshoe-back armchair, Jiaoyi, 17th century. 39¾ in (101 cm) high, 27 in (68.6 cm) wide, 26½ in (67.3 cm) deep. Estimate: $1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 13 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York
A magnificent and very rare huanghuali folding horseshoe-back armchair, Jiaoyi, 17th century. 39¾ in (101 cm) high, 27 in (68.6 cm) wide, 26½ in (67.3 cm) deep. Estimate: $1,000,000-1,500,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art on 13 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Made from exotic woods and sometimes from carved lacquer, with decorative metalwork strengthening the joints and hinges, these horseshoe-back folding chairs were used by the imperial family, persons of rank and scholars. Emperors used them as portable thrones while on diplomatic campaigns and leisurely outings.

A painting by the Italian artist and Jesuit missionary Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766), now in the Musée Guimet in Paris, shows the Qianlong Emperor (1711-1799) sitting on a folding horseshoe-back armchair while receiving tribute horses from Kazakh emissaries. In this painting, the folding chair is used as a throne.
The chair was designed to be folded so that it could accompany noble personages on their travels
The chair was designed to be folded so that it could accompany noble personages on their travels

The specialist explains that fewer than 30 of these horseshoe-back armchairs dating to the Ming dynasty — when the design reached its pinnacle — are known to exist. The majority of those are in museums, she adds, including the Nelson-Atkins Kansas City, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and the Palace Museum, Beijing.

On 13 September, Christie’s will be auctioning a very rare example still remaining in private hands. ‘It’s made from huanghuali, a type of Asian rosewood, and embodies the subtle grace and technical genius associated with the finest Ming furniture,’ Cheng says. ‘It takes great skill and knowledge to know how to shape the wood into these graceful curves. There is little doubt that the commissioner of this chair was of great status and wealth.’

The chair is being sold as part of The Rustic Studio Collection, a group of six lots from a private collection that was built under the guidance of the prominent classical Chinese furniture dealer Grace Wu Bruce, whose gallery is based in Hong Kong.

 A very rare and superb set of four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, Quanyi. 17th century. 37½ in (95.3 cm) high, 23 in (58.5 cm.) wide, 17¾ in (45.1 cm.) deep. Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 13 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York
A very rare and superb set of four huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, Quanyi. 17th century. 37½ in (95.3 cm) high, 23 in (58.5 cm.) wide, 17¾ in (45.1 cm.) deep. Estimate: $800,000-1,200,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 13 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Among the other lots from this collection are a set of four 17th-century horseshoe-back armchairs, also made from huanghuali. ‘Sets of four chairs are usually broken up into pairs and singles, so to have a true, original group is remarkable,’ says Cheng. ‘They’re also incredibly beautiful, with a lightness about them due to the sparse supporting members. This forces you to admire their curve and silhouette.’

 rare and massive huanghuali trestle-leg table, Qiaotou’an. 17th century. 35 in (88.9 cm) high, 93½ in (237.5 cm) wide, 17½ in (44.5 cm) deep. Estimate: $600,000-800,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 13 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York
A rare and massive huanghuali trestle-leg table, Qiaotou’an. 17th century. 35 in (88.9 cm) high, 93½ in (237.5 cm) wide, 17½ in (44.5 cm) deep. Estimate: $600,000-800,000. Offered in Important Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art on 13 September 2019 at Christie’s in New York

Another highlight of the collection is the trestle-leg table shown above, also made in the 17th century, which features carved elephant heads and openwork dragons.

Classical Chinese Furniture from The Rustic Studiowill be on view at Christie’s in New York from 6-11 September 2019, ahead of the sale on 13 September.

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