Furniture at too cheap a price
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    Auction Finds

    A small huanghuali chest with a big price

    The bids kept going higher and higher – past $5,000, then $6,000 and way past $10,000. I stretched my neck to take an even closer look at this item that was demanding so much money and causing buyers to accept thousand-dollar bids without hesitation. 

    “I hope they pay for it,” said the auction-goer sitting next to me. Plenty of times, people will bid on items but don’t bother to pay for them. He figured that this could be one of those times.

    Most of us sat and listened as two online bidders battled it out for the item: a Chinese huanghuali seal chest from the 18th or 19th century.  According to the auction sheet, it was made of rosewood and other wood, with a carved figural and floral screen on top and four drawers with ivory pulls. It had been placed on a glass counter at the front of a room at the auction house, and from where I sat, I could see that it was a lovely grain of wood.

    When the bids finally settled down and stopped, the chest sold for $22,000. We all clapped and cheered. It was the most expensive item sold at this quality sale at one of my favorite auction houses.

    With all the drama, I was now curious about this item because it was obviously more than just a plain old chest. I Googled and found that the value was in the wood used to make the chest and not necessarily the chest itself.


    Huanghuali, or yellow rosewood, dates back to the Ming and Qing Dynasties in China, where it was used to make exquisite furniture. A dense hardwood known for its beautiful grain, items made from it are said to be very collectible. Here’s how one site described it:

    “With its outstanding rough grain and natural brownish-yellow to purplish-red wood, the term huanghuali literally means ‘yellow flowering pear.’  The principle wood used during the mid-Ming to early Qing Dynasties, the finest examples of this wood have a translucent, shimmering surface with abstractly figured patterns and colors that range from a reddish-brown to a golden-yellow.  Today, huanghuali is considered extinct; consequently, pieces built from this wood are highly sought after by collectors worldwide.”

    The seal chest itself had a functional use. One website noted that they were used by Chinese scholars to hold their seals, ink and inkstones. Another site was selling one from the 1820s that, according to the seller, had been owned by a Chinese government official.

    Several huanghuali items that came up at auction last year also brought high prices. At Sotheby’s, an embellished chest with inlaid ivory, soapstone and mother of pearl boys at play sold for $80,500. At Christie’s, a pair of drum stools made from huanghuali and burlwood from the Qing Dynasty sold for $80,166.

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