Lot 34. A pair of huanghuali horseshoe-back armchairs, quanyi, Late Ming–early Qing dynasty; seat area 60 by 46.7 cm, overall 69.8 by 46.7 by h. 98 cm. Estimate: 2,000,000 - 3,000,000 HKD. Lot sold: 2,520,000 HKD. Courtesy Sotheby's.
each with a curving crest rail terminating in outscrolled handgrips, supported by a gently curved S-shaped back splat flanked by shaped flanges and carved with a ruyi-shaped cartouche enclosing a pair of chilong, the mat seat set within a moulded frame, the legs joined by a beaded-edged cusped apron and connected to a footrest and stepped stretchers.
Note: It is extremely rare to find a pair of such chairs of generous proportions and elegantly constructed with a continuous crest rail comprising five sections and a wide back splat carved with confronting chilong enclosed in a ruyi-shaped medallion. These chairs owe their aesthetic appeal to the remarkable fluid movement, which provides a sense of containment and ease to their occupants.Known as quanyi ('circular chair') or yuanyi ('round chair'), horseshoe-back armchairs display the ingenuity of Ming dynasty craftsmen, who were able to develop complicated and seamless joinery techniques. In order to create the continuous back, members were fitted together with a cut-out to accommodate a tapered wood pin that would lock them firmly in place when inserted. The complexity of the design required exacting craftsmanship as a slight error in the tilt of any of the joins would be magnified by the adjoining members. Once the lacquered coat was applied to the surface crest rail, the underlying joinery was not visible and virtually impossible to wrest apart.
Horseshoe-back armchairs became particularly popular in the Ming dynasty and were frequently depicted in contemporary woodblock illustrated books, where they are shown used in both formal and informal occasions and by both male and female family members. See a pair of armchairs illustrated in the Ming Wanli period edition of Han furen tihong ji [Lady Han inscribes red] (fig. 1).
Illustration in Han furen tihong ji [Lady Han inscribes red], Ming dynasty, Wanli period edition