The Value Of Chinese Furniture Begins With The Wood
By Izzy Chait -
Recently, some collectors of American and European furniture have made comments and asked questions about Chinese furniture, with a viewpoint based upon a false presumption that furniture in and from China is not as sturdy or as durable as Western furniture. I have to say this is not an accurate statement, and this concept, being false, should get put to bed immediately.
A great deal of furniture has come out of China in the last couple of decades. Most of it is constructed of soft woods, such as elmwood and others, and most of it is 50 to 100 years old. Some of it is also made out of parts of other pieces. You might say that this kind of furniture, often referred to as Provincial, has great similarities to the Early 20th Century furniture that for many decades was imported from the British Isles. Many of those pieces were somewhat Art Deco in design, and many were oak. They, too, were for what you might say was domestic or provincial use and just like their Chinese counterparts, were not expensive when made and still are not expensive.
That furniture is not going to be the subject of this article. Neither is Chinese furniture made out of teakwood or rosewood made during the last 80-plus years and which is still being made today. If these pieces are properly kiln dried, then when they do arrive in the West, they don’t split or crack, and they do last quite a long time. Their drawbacks are that they are often quite heavy, almost always dark, and very frequently get disposed of when people’s decorating taste changes because they might clash with more modern styles. They are also, from time to time, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, and when the wood dries or gets wet and then dries, the mother-of-pearl falls out and is not glued back or saved. This is also true of similar furniture appliquéd in soapstone and other various soft stones.
The subject of this article concerns itself with furniture that today at auction can bring tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, and sometimes even millions of dollars. The woods used in these types of furniture, generally made during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (15th Century through 19th Century), are rare woods, hardwoods and of course, durable woods. I need to also point out that this class of furniture was expensive when it was made, and that an upper-class Chinese home, temple, or palace is very different than a Western home.
Generally, these Chinese homes had stone floors. Rugs were sometimes put out, but when the floors were cleaned, the rugs were rolled up, and the floors were mopped. Because the furniture was valuable and often had expensive objects placed on them, the furniture was never moved for cleaning. Rather, it was mopped under and around. Now, we all know that a wet mop slapping up against the legs of wood furniture causes an effect. That effect is usually water staining, and after dozens or hundreds of years of similar treatment, that is one of the first things a Chinese furniture collector looks for in dating a piece of Chinese furniture. These things did not exist in a vacuum.
Probably the most valuable of all the woods that were was used in China is usually referred to as zitan (sometimes called red sandalwood and sometimes called purple rosewood). It was very often used in classical Chinese furniture, and even King Solomon was given tribute logs of this wood by the Queen of Sheba. The wood grows slowly and is rare. The Qing Dynasty emperors also favored this wood. There are still some of these types of wood existing in Southeast Asia, and they are highly prized because of their scarcity. They are rarely made into furniture but rather into boxes, table screens, scroll weights, etc., which can be made from smaller pieces.
The second most prized wood for the Ming and Qing Dynasties was “huang huali,” which literally means “yellow flowering pear wood” and is often described as yellow rosewood. In the early 20th Century, the modifier “huang” was added to the old terminology of just “huali” because the surfaces of these woods had mellowed to a beautifully golden yellowish tone due to decades or centuries of exposure to light. This wood also came from more southerly climes and may still be found in Southeast Asia.
Now that we have covered those types of woods used for furniture over the last 500 or 600 years, it should also be noted that some furniture was made in China for thousands of years, though of course, finding thousand or two-thousand- year-old furniture in Asia would be like finding Greco/Roman furniture intact. Wood carvings and furniture-type items thousands of years old have been found in Egyptian tombs, but primarily because they had been sealed for all that time, and they were preserved by the dryness of the desert.
Going back to other woods used in China, but generally more modern and less valuable, would be teak from South China and Southeast Asia, as well as the South Pacific. Ebony is another wood that is occasionally used in Chinese furniture. It is native to Western Africa and is one of the most intensely dense black woods known. It was used extensively in ancient Egypt, and it also found its way into Europe in the 16th Century.
Another interesting wood sometimes used in furniture but usually used in other kinds of carvings is ironwood. Unlike these other woods, the reason a wood or type of wood might be referred to as “ironwood” only has to do with its hardness, meaning it is both heavy and tough. There are different species of trees all over the world that have been referred to as ironwood. These trees can occur on any continent and in any hemisphere, and even the word “ironwood” lends itself toward interesting interpretations. As I said, it is rarely used in Chinese furniture, but sometimes used in carvings.
This article is hardly a drop in the bucket as to the vast variety of woods that might have been used in Chinese furniture, but interest comes where value lies. Because the value of Classical Chinese furniture has skyrocketed in the past few years and because the Chinese are buying back as much Ming and Qing fine furniture as they can, interest, of course, is peaked when zeros get added to the hammer prices of these furniture items at auction—far exceeding anyone’s estimate, expectations, or even wild imaginings. For example, an Imperial Qianlong Period zitan throne chair sold in Hong Kong in October 2009 for approximately US $12 million to a Shanghai collector.
Isadore Chait is the owner of I.M. Chait Auctions of Beverly Hills, California.