Thanks to the trained eye of Antiques Roadshow expert Lark Mason, a twin set of extraordinary 400-year-old Chinese chairs have been reunited and are now up for auction. Against the backdrop of China’s momentous history—wars, famines, political tumult and a long list of rulers of wildly varying dispositions—these identical museum-worthy Huanghuali chairs stood side by side, decade after decade, century after century. Then, after all that time, the chairs came to be separated.
According to Mason, the renowned authority in Chinese art and antiquities and the former director of online auctions at Sotheby’s, the story of the chairs begins with an American ambassador named Philip Manhard, who as young foreign service officer was stationed in Tientsin in late 1949 and charged with overseeing American interests in China. “It was a tense, confusing time,” says Mason. “The Nationalist government fled to Taiwan and the Chinese Communist government took over the country. And it was at this point that Manhard found himself in the advantageous position to make a very noteworthy purchase.” Chinese citizens who could get passage out of Tientsin were clamoring to sell prized possessions to the few remaining Western residents, Manhard among them.
Even in a market flooded with heart-stoppingly beautiful furniture, paintings, Imperial ceramics and other objets d’art, says Mason, Manhard could not have failed to recognize the outstanding quality of two 17th-century chairs that must have stood out very conspicuously. Says Mason: “They are simply outstanding. The quality is extraordinary; the condition, superb. The moldings are finely beaded, and the crest rails and handgrips are boldly curved. Is it any wonder Manhard could not resist them?”
Manhard continued his foreign service career, ultimately serving as ambassador to Mauritius. He and his family eventually settled outside of Washington, D.C., where he raised two sons, Philip Jr. and Richard. The pair of chairs were the standouts in a modest household inventory that included an array of other Asian works of art. Manhard passed away in 1998, but not before conveying to each scion one of the chairs. Son Phil moved to Englewood, Fla., and Rick to Sterling, Va., each taking his heirloom with him.
In late 2013, Phil contacted Lark Mason for an opinion. The moment his e-mail arrived with a photo attached, Mason recognized the chair as a masterwork of the Chinese cabinetmaker’s craft, dating from the late Ming Dynasty. After a series of conversations about a possible sale, Phil revealed that his chair is one of a pair, a discovery that all the more thrilled Mason, who reached out to Phil’s brother, Rick. A visit to him in Virginia resulted in the chair’s being brought to New York, where it was reunited with its mate in Lark Mason Associates’ Gallery. The chairs are now being offered for sale as a pair in an auction of works of art that closes on April 30th.
Chairs of this type rarely have both pierced aprons with upright braces and beaded legs, although both features are individually commonly associated with examples from the early 17th centuries. The striking curvature of the S-scrolled splats and the dramatic grain enhance both chairs. (Est: $120,000-$180,000)
Concludes Mason: “These beautiful chairs are now ready to begin a new chapter in their long, long lives, a chapter that may well take them back to China, the location of their birth, bringing this noteworthy tale full circle.”
For more information visit: larkmasonassociates.com or igavelauctions.com.