Ming Dynasty

The furniture and objects of this period rule the world of Chinese antiques right now, their understated beauty meshing brilliantly with contemporary taste

Chinese art, objects, and furniture have all become tremendously prized in the West of late as designers and decorators have discovered just how successfully they integrate into widely diverse stylistic settings. As Carey Maloney, a Manhattan-based designer with M (Group), put it recently: "They work in traditional French Directoire interiors, but they're newer and more sophisticated in more modern settings." In particular, antique Chinese furniture, with its purity of form and lustrous hardwoods, looks almost uncannily at home in the eclectic environments favored by so many of today's decorators. This affinity reaches its apotheosis with furniture from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644)—the period when refinement of design, deftness of craft, and beauty of materials ascended to a peak of harmonious perfection.

It is not hard to understand the passion for Ming, which possesses the spare lines, elegant proportions, and simple grace of a thoroughbred racehorse. Unlike later Chinese furniture, it is rarely heavily ornamented. Rather, it tries to accentuate the intrinsic beauty of its materials: the graining of the wood or patterns in the stone insets.

"Not only is Ming furniture beautiful," says Giuseppe Eskenazi, dean of the London dealers in Oriental art, "but it's easy to put in a contemporary house or an old house. It goes with both old masters and modern paintings. It is simple, pleasing, architectural, and it isn't cumbersome. It's light. It's even comfortable when you get used to it."

Kitty Hawks, a New York interior designer who admires Ming furniture and often incorporates it into her clients' homes, commented, "When I put one Chinese piece in an interior, it makes everything else snap to attention. It's best used sparingly, though. Ming is good for sofa tables—and the cabinets are fabulous anywhere, anytime. It is the easiest style to use because it exemplifies the best taste in the world." Hawks has combined Ming with almost every period of furniture. For example, she put a Georgian chair next to a Chinese altar table. "And anyone who is drawn to the abstract is drawn to this furniture," she added. "What do you think a Parsons table is? A Ming altar table."

Peter Marino, the favorite designer of the fashion set—he's done apartments for Valentino, Saint Laurent, and Armani, among others—likes to mix Ming with Art Deco. He finds Ming furniture to be as practical as it is pleasing to the eye. "I put four of the twenty by twenty-inch stools together to make a large square coffee table," he said. "The four can then be taken apart and placed as end tables." He pointed out that in the 1940s Danish Modern designers like Hans Wegner collected drawings of Ming furniture. "Wegner was clearly influenced by Ming," Marino said. "Just look at his famous 'Ox' chair. Ming seems to have created minimalist chic four hundred years ago."

Robert H. Ellsworth, the dean of the New York dealers in Asian art, lives in a Fifth Avenue apartment with both fine Early American and classical Chinese furniture. Ellsworth began collecting American antiques in his teens, then moved on to Ming and Qing furniture and objets d'art. The collections live in separate spaces, however. He can move from his living room, a Western version of a Chinese scholar's studio, to a great 18th-century paneled Newport-style library in four steps. It works perfectly.

Ming furniture was fiercely admired long before its current vogue. And in discerning its value, Chinese connoisseurs as far back as the early 1600s practiced shang jian, the art of appreciating quality and discovering forgery in such works. Likewise, they sought to surround themselves with pieces that were ya (elegant), not su (vulgar). After I'd studied Chinese classical furniture at Asian art fairs and read Ellsworth's authoritative book Chinese Furniture, I began to play the shang jian game. On a trip to Hong Kong last October, I scoured Hollywood Road—the city's antiques Mecca—to see if I could pick out an authentic piece of Ming furniture.

After four hours and a dozen galleries, I had sore feet but no Ming sightings. There was one altar table in a shop window that had nice lines, which is why I thought it might be the real thing, but its odd gray patina made me skeptical. Everything else looked like would-be Ming, maybe-Ming, or Mixmaster Ming. The proportions appeared wrong, the surfaces were overrestored. Some of the lacquer looked new. I felt foolish, like someone who couldn't find a single Louis XV commode along the Faubourg St-Honoré.

I asked the veteran Chinese furniture dealer Grace Wu Bruce if she would retrace my steps with me. "First of all," she explained gently, "it's unlikely that wonderful things would be in a shop window on Hollywood Road. Here you buy antiques at your own risk. If a shop has any genuine treasures, they are usually hidden in the back. They only bring them out if they think you are a true connoisseur."

At first glance she could tell that the altar table was not Ming, and later by examining the joinery, which lacked the incredibly narrow tolerances characteristic of true Ming. As for the gray patina, she explained that it had been applied to make the piece seem older and to cover an inferior wood. Wood grain was very important to Ming carpenters; they would put the best cut on the tabletop to show off its figuration. This tabletop looked muddy.

We concluded there was no real Ming furniture in the Hollywood Road shops I'd visited that day. To find the genuine item, Wu Bruce said, we would have to go upstairs, to the private dealers.

We started at her gallery, a serene, all-white minimalist loft in a modern office building. Wu Bruce has been specializing as a dealer in 16th- and 17th-century Chinese antiques since 1987 and is the author of Chinese Classical Furniture (Oxford University Press, 1995). This past November, she opened a second gallery in London, at 12A Balfour Mews in Mayfair.

Grace Wu Bruce is known for her first-rate Ming antiques. In October she had a scholar's painting table, a low couch bed with latticework sides that prefigures Chinese Chippendale by centuries, a games table, a pair of high yokeback armchairs, two matching sloping-stile cabinets with original hardware, a canopy bed, and a kang table, a low table where the family would gather to eat and talk. These pieces were shown in pristine room settings, with period accessories: an altar stand, round brush pots, small all-purpose storage boxes, various screens, and ancient bronze mirrors on folding wood stands.

Wu Bruce said the golden age of Ming furniture was 1567 to 1644. As we toured her space, she rattled off the areas of expertise I would have to master to determine the quality of a given piece: Does the design carry the hallmarks of the period? (For example, the use of different woods on a piece, which allowed subtle contrasts of color and texture, which seemed to occur in the 17th century.) Are its proportions classical? Wu Bruce pointed to a Southern Official Hat chair, which characteristically uses slender round-sectioned members above the seat frame and sturdier square-sectioned members below, with the result that the sublimely elegant proportions of the upper part are kept in balance by the greater feeling of strength and solidity in the legs. Is the symmetry perfect? A close examination of a round-corner sloping-stile cabinet revealed that the only detectable variations in its formal symmetry were naturally occurring differences in the grain of the wood.

Pay particular attention to the joinery, the art of which reached its apex in the Ming Dynasty, Wu Bruce counseled. Like most antique Chinese furniture, Ming is constructed from components fitted together with a unique mortise-and-tenon system perfected over hundreds of years. The Chinese used glue or nails sparingly, which is why Ming pieces come apart rather easily (another litmus test). As Wu Bruce said, "First, you see if there is beautiful precision to the joinery. Then, when you take it apart, if it is very old the wood will have a different color because it's never been exposed to air. Study the wood." (Of course, only an expert should disassemble a piece.)

"Ming style is ancient—the culmination of centuries of trial and error," Wu Bruce continued. "It's a slow evolution of a style. The joinery was mastered in the Han, in 200 b.c. The designs were formulated in the Tang Dynasty (618-907). By the 11th century most of the forms were finalized. In the mid-16th century, when hardwoods became available, the craftsmen knew just what to do."

Most Ming furniture is made of two varieties of tropical hardwood, huanghuali and zitan, which were imported into China from Southeast and Central Asia beginning in the 16th century. Indigenous softwoods like cedar, walnut, pine, camphor, elm, boxwood, and cypress were also used, though there are few examples around today. As Wu Bruce put it: "I'm skeptical about pieces surviving if they were softwood—and four hundred years is quite a long time. But I am open-minded about it." (In fact, the softwood pieces that have come down to us tend to be from the later, Qing Dynasty.)

Collectors prefer huanghuali, which has a nearly translucent surface. Christopher Cooke, a London restorer of Chinese furniture for nearly two decades, said, "One of the most magical things about huanghuali is its depth. It has nothing to do with wax or oil or what you put on it. It simply has more depth than any other wood, even the greatest Cuban mahogany. You can actually see beneath its surface." (It is also so dense it can sink in water.)

Ming antiques are scarce—and getting scarcer—which explains why a good piece starts at $20,000. Wu Bruce believes the number of extant pieces to be only in the thousands. Long a favorite category among connoisseurs, the world began taking notice of the furniture in 1995, sparked by an exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of Art entitled In Pursuit of Antiquities. It featured 63 items of fine furniture belonging to members of the Min Chiu Society, a private club of very wealthy Hong Kong collectors. In the spring of 1996 the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston installed a Ming-style courtyard house as part of Beyond the Screen: Chinese Furniture of the 16th and 17th Centuries. That fall saw the formal opening of the Shanghai Museum, with a permanent display of the Ming and Qing collection formed in part by the Beijing art historian Wang Shixiang, who wrote two important books on Chinese joinery.

Also that fall, Christie's New York auctioned off all 107 pieces in the collection of the now defunct Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture (one-third of which had been purchased from Wu Bruce). The sale total was $11.2 million, $4 million over the high estimate of $7.5 million. Damon Spilios, owner of the Manhattan gallery Ming Furniture Ltd., said, "The collection may not even be in the top five, but it was the first great and comprehensive collection at auction, so it got a lot of attention."

At that auction, as reported in New York magazine, former Disney President Michael Ovitz spent $838,000 for two display cabinets and five 17th-century horseshoe-back chairs. And The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which was then reconstructing a ca. 1600 reception hall purchased in China, convinced donors Bruce and Ruth Dayton to shell out more than a million dollars for a seven-foot-high marble and huanghuali carved standing screen, an auction record for Chinese furniture.

"Ming furniture is in demand now, as it was in its own time. It is the rediscovery of a major tradition of the past," Wu Bruce said. "It was always meant to be rediscovered; it was just a question of time."

Because good Ming pieces cost so much, Dessa Goddard, who is director of Asian art at the Butterfield & Butterfield auction house in San Francisco and Los Angeles, said, "Ming antiques are for the collecting elite." Goddard speculated that the austere lines of Ming furniture appeal to the American businessman or woman who desires a bit of serenity in life. Simplicity of line goes with clarity of thought. Plain surfaces and beautiful woods foster contemplation.

Which is exactly how the furniture was designed to be used. As Craig Clunas explains in his 1988 book Chinese Furniture, scholar's guides to elegant living were written as early as the 16th century and included discussions of furniture that is ya and su. (Ming, of course, is ya.) One ca. 1620 text, Treatise on Superfluous Things, has 20 sections on various furniture styles-among them Ming-appropriate for the elegant interior. At the time, Clunas writes, furniture was not just a necessary adjunct to civilized living; it was part of a continuous moral and aesthetic discourse. The right furniture could be morally ennobling. That is particularly pertinent to Ming furniture, because it was designed to serve a scholar elite at a time when scholars were the elite. Woodblock-printed illustrations in works of fiction and drama of the day exhibit the arrangement of the pieces and the role they played in the niceties of social interaction. Ming houses were sparsely yet elegantly furnished. Items might include a long table for painting and writing, a chair suitable for a scholar, tall cupboards, stools and chairs, a meditation platform, a basin stand, a screen, and a canopy bed.

Today, dealers complain about the dearth of Ming. Jim Lally, a top New York dealer in Chinese objets d'art, said "People think they can shop for Ming like George III furniture, but it's not that easy to find. It's ten times more rare."

Theow-Huang Tow, Christie's international director of Chinese Works of Art, explained, "The pool of buyers is expanding, with good furniture now being avidly collected in Taiwan and China, in addition to the continuing interest in the field by Americans and Europeans. The prices for classical Chinese furniture are strong—but only for the best examples."

Marcus Flacks, a New York dealer from England, said, "Most of the great material was discovered in China between 1985 and 1995. All the logical areas have been scoured. In the late '80s there were probably as many as 250,000 runners [scouts for antiques]. Today there is a fraction of that number. People know more now. If a piece is good, it's expensive."

Last fall Flacks responded to the shortage by organizing Woods of China, a show that featured classical-style Chinese furniture constructed of elm, boxwood, cedar, cypress, pear, walnut, and a variety of other woods. In form, they were often identical to the Ming pieces in huanghuali and zitan, but the prices were lower.

Anyone who wants to collect bona fide Ming must proceed with intelligence and caution. Jim Lally pointed out a new Catch-22: You can now buy Ming furniture at auction in Beijing, but you can't take out of the country anything that's more than 100 years old. All the dealers I consulted said to beware of fakes and overrestored old pieces. One brand-new East Side gallery in New York, for example, is showing Chinese antiques right off the boat. Asked if the shop had anything Ming, the owners pointed to a tall, square walnut table. It was ugly, it was too tall, and its apron didn't look right. "It's horrible," exclaimed Flacks when queried about the table. "It's probably a late-eighteenth-century altar stand for a familial shrine. It doesn't come from the tradition of Ming at all."


Ming Under Mao

How did Ming antiques survive Mao's Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and '70s? According to one Hong Kong dealer, those with sufficient courage simply disassembled their furniture and hid it under piles of firewood. Nancy Murphy, owner of the WaterMoon Gallery in Manhattan (which sells Chinese softwood antiques in the $1,200-$18,000 range), lived in Beijing for many years. She says that during the Cultural Revolution some families sent their finest furniture from the cities out to the countryside, where there was less violence.

"The rest of their good furniture was put out on the street," Murphy adds. "Owners abandoned it because they didn't want to risk being caught and labeled bourgeois. Those who did not fear political retribution could scavenge the stuff on the street." She recalls how shocked she was when she visited the home of a politically well-connected family and saw it decorated with abandoned Ming and Qing antiques.

According to a second Hong Kong dealer, Red Guards would deface the furniture. "They'd burn it, smash it, cut armrests off chairs, or punch a hole in a cabinet door," he says, adding that a lot of new lacquer was put on top of old pieces after the Cultural Revolution to hide the cuts.


Tips on Buying Ming

The limited number of fine pieces available—and the consequent prevalence of fakes—mean it's wise to rely on reputable, well-respected dealers. Also keep in mind that the best pieces appear at auction rarely; they are usually traded privately.

Request a condition report. From it you can learn where joints have been strengthened, braces or other parts replaced, gaps filled, and which decorative details are added or recarved.

If a piece looks too perfect, be suspicious. Genuine Ming pieces always display some quirks—an uneven patina, for instance—usually the result of age. That notwithstanding, the grain of the various elements should match. That's especially true for chairs, as one common subterfuge is to take apart an authentic piece, add new wood, and create a pair. One clue: The wood available today comes mostly from Vietnam and does not have the patina, grain, or color of the older hardwood.

An inscribed date should send up a red flag. Only a handful of pieces are so marked, warns Lark E. Mason Jr., vice president of the Chinese Works of Art Department at Sotheby's New York. Because no design books exist from the period, and virtually nothing is known about the craftsmen, dating a Ming piece is extremely difficult. It's further complicated by the fact that the Ming Dynasty design and construction techniques continued into the 18th, 19th, even the 20th century.

To restore or not to restore? In many cases, the Ming furniture you see today has already been repaired, restored, scraped, waxed, and buffed. Christopher Cooke, widely considered the foremost restorer of Ming furniture, believes in conservation of the original surface, with minimal restoration. He says that signs of daily use—ink stains, red seal paste, and water marks—should remain. Most agree that too much stripping and buffing to a high gloss can harm the original surface and lower the piece's value. —BOBBIE LEIGH


Top Sources

Hong Kong

Albert Chan, Chan Shing Kee, 228-230 Queen's Road Central, Ground Floor, Central Hong Kong; 852-2543-1245; fax 852-2815-0561.
Charles C.W. Wong, Ever Arts Classic Furniture Ltd., Garley Building, 51A Graham Street, Ground Floor, Central Hong Kong; 852-2522-8176; fax 852-2521-8797.
Grace Wu Bruce Co. Ltd., 701 Universal Trade Centre, 3 Arbuthnot Road; 852-2537-1288; fax 852-2537-0213.

London

Christopher Cooke, Restorer, Taybridge House, 3 Taybridge Road, SW11 5PR; 44-171-350-0504; fax 44-171-978-5461.
Eskenazi Ltd., Giuseppe Eskenazi, 10 Clifford Street, W1X 1RB; 44-171-493-5464; fax 44-171-499-3136.
Nicholas Grindley, 13 Old Burlington Street, W1X 1LA; 44-171-437-5449; fax 44-171-494-2446.
Grace Wu Bruce Ltd. 12A Balfour Mews, W1Y 5RJ; 44-171-499-3750; fax 44-171-491-3896.

New York

Md Flacks Ltd., Marcus Flacks, 38 East 57th Street, Sixth Floor; 212-838-4575; fax 212-838-2976.
Jim Lally, J.J. Lally & Co., 41 East 57th Street; 212-371-3380; fax 212-593-4699.
Ming Furniture Ltd., Damon Spilios, 31 East 64th Street; tel/fax 212-734-9524.
Watermoon Gallery, Nancy Murphy, 211 West Broadway; 212-925-5556; fax 212-925-5585.

Wendy Moonan writes the "Antiques" column for the "Weekend, Fine Arts/Leisure" section of The New York Times and is a contributing editor at House & Garden.