Bonhams to Offer Chinese Hair Ornaments From the Hsiao Family Collection

Liz Catalano
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A group of hairpins from the Ming through Qing dynasties. Image from Bonhams.
A group of hairpins from the Ming through Qing dynasties. Image from Bonhams.

Before Chinese hair ornaments became collector’s items, they served both functional and social uses in ancient dynasties. Both women and men bound up their hair during elaborate coming-of-age ceremonies. Women specifically used hairpins to secure the styles. The social role of hairpins evolved as dynasties rose and fell. Most often, women used their hairstyles and accessories to communicate wealth, status, and personal taste.

Bonhams’ upcoming Elegant Embellishments auction will feature these hairpins and other Chinese hair ornaments from the Hsiao Family Collection. Hsiao Chung Lung, a legal consultant and Shanghai native, started building the collection in the 1970s. He sought antique Chinese jewelry and other artifacts that date back to the Shang dynasty (c. 1600 – 1046 BCE). The upcoming auction will feature 73 lots from the Hsiao Family Collection, including Chinese hair ornaments, gold figures, and other accessories.

Group of eight gold hairpins, Song to Yuan dynasty. Image from Bonhams.
Group of eight gold hairpins, Song to Yuan dynasty. Image from Bonhams.

Early Chinese hair ornaments were made almost exclusively of jade, wood, or bone. Women typically used a single pin to secure buns and other hairstyles. Over time, these designs became more elaborate and differentiated. The early ji, for example, yielded the two-braid chai. These double pins could secure more hair with fewer ornaments.

Leading the upcoming Bonhams auction is a group of these double hairpins that date back to the Song and Yuan dynasties (960 – 1368 CE). These ornaments are made from long, solid gold pins that have been folded in half. The available hairpins, known as zhegu chai, were popular for their twists and flower details. Bonhams will present the hairpin group with an estimate of USD 7,400 to $11,000.

Suite of gilt silver filigree headdress and hairpins, possibly Liao dynasty. Image from Bonhams.
Suite of gilt silver filigree headdress and hairpins, possibly Liao dynasty. Image from Bonhams.

Around the same period, the Liao dynasty began in present-day Northeast China and Mongolia. Dominated by the Khitan ethnic group, the Liao society afforded more rights and opportunities to women than the Han Chinese-dominated southern region. Upper-class women could hold military and political positions, and women of all statuses could manage property, balance finances, and hunt.

A gilt silver filigree headdress and matching hairpins possibly from the Liao dynasty will cross Bonhams’ auction block this August. The half-moon headdress is a huadian or flower band that accessorized top knots. This type of hair ornament changed shape through various dynasties. Similar huasheng ornaments sometimes rested on the forehead, and women matched them with hanging beads, bells, or other hairpins. Several single-stick hairpins accompany the offered headdress ($1,100 – $1,500). Under imperial orders, women paired huadian ornaments with elaborate phoenix crowns or small supporting pins. The Elegant Embellishments auction will present several examples of these small pins, including the floral motif pins in lot #10 ($590 – $880).

Gold leaf and turquoise earrings, and two circular gold appliqués. Earrings from the Shang dynasty. Image from Bonhams.
Gold leaf and turquoise earrings, and two circular gold appliqués. Earrings from the Shang dynasty. Image from Bonhams.

Collectors of early Chinese artifacts will find several examples in the auction catalog. Among the offered Shang dynasty jewelry pieces is a pair of gold leaf and turquoise earrings. While written records contain some details about the previous Xia dynasty, the dynastic archaeological record starts with the Shang state. Ancient artifacts, including the available pair of earrings, were likely found in tomb excavations within the capital city of Yin. 

Gold was a coveted material during the Shang dynasty period. These earrings were likely worn by an aristocratic woman who had access to hammered gold. Traditions and symbols from the nomadic Eurasian cultures of the period inspired the crescent moon-shaped earrings. Two circular gold appliqués accompany the earrings. The presale estimate for the group is $740 to $1,500. 

Beyond Chinese hair ornaments, bidders can consider a selection of gold Buddha figurines, groups of glass and shell beads, and ancient bronze seals. Several lots come from the collection of Australian art collector Gora Singh Mann and other Sydney private collections. Bonhams will present the Elegant Embellishments auction on August 8th, 2021, starting at 2:00 PM EDT. Find the complete catalog and register to bid on Bonhams’ website.

Looking for more deep dives into collecting categories? Check out Auction Daily’s examination of record-breaking video game auctions.

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James Ardis
James Ardis
Senior Writer and Editor

James Ardis is a writer, editor, and content strategist focused on the auction industry. His company, James Ardis Writing, has partnered with auction houses, galleries, and many clients outside the art world.

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