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Prices Have Soared for a Ming of Beauty

March 01, 1997|From Associated Press

The classical Chinese furniture of the 16th and 17th centuries has turned into a hot commodity.

Prices have skyrocketed, Kristen Carr wrote in an article in the current issue of Town & Country, to levels previously reserved for signed 17th century French pieces.

At Christie's last fall, collectors, including former Disney executive Mike Ovitz and painter Bruce Marden, watched as one late Ming-period horseshoe-backed chair went at auction for more than $500,000.

All eyes, it seems, are now on what could become the most coveted furniture of the late '90s.

"Chinese furniture of the late Ming and early Qing periods is the true cosmopolite of the decorative-arts world--it fits beautifully anywhere you put it and with anything from a Chinese painting to a Franz Kline," said Robert Ellsworth, a longtime dealer and author of "Chinese Furniture."

London dealer Nicholas Grindley added: "It's probably the most sophisticated furniture ever produced--it's very pared down, very simple, and beautifully made."

This restrained aesthetic helps Chinese furniture adapt to a surprisingly wide range of interior styles.

In their Litchfield, Conn., home, Robert and Adriana Mnuchin mix Ming with Biedermeier, secessionist and William IV furniture and epic modernist art; in New York, John W. Gruber combines museum-quality Ming and Qing chairs, tables and chests with 18th century British furniture.

Not all collectors use their Chinese furniture, but others welcome it into their living rooms for more than display.

"You take reasonable precautions," said Jack Bulmash, a Chicago collector who enjoys breakfasting at his late 16th century kitchen table--as long as it is protected by a tablecloth over a thin cotton pad.

The rare Eastern hardwoods used in classical Chinese furniture contribute to its sturdiness and surprising durability, said Marcus Flacks of MD Flacks Ltd., who timed his gallery's recent move to New York from London to coincide with the rising demand for Chinese furniture in the United States.

One of the most prized of these woods, Flacks said, is huanguali, a beautifully patterned rosewood that ranges in color from a honeyed gold to a rich orangy red.

"It's very, very hard and also very rich in oils. Both traits help it survive in less than ideal conditions," he said.

Flexible and functional though it may be, Chinese furniture does come up short in terms of modern Western ideas of comfort.

"Chinese beds, even large ones, are too small for two people to sleep in," said Bulmash, who nonetheless has one outfitted with a futon in his guest bedroom.

Chinese chairs are notoriously uncomfortable, although they might be less so if collectors used seat cushions as the Chinese did.

"To spend an evening in a Chinese chair would not be most people's idea of a good time," said interior designer Kitty Hawks.

That's probably why most Western collectors blend Chinese furniture with English, French and American pieces--so they can sit on the more comfortable chairs and admire the beautiful Chinese ones. Still, the Chinese pieces have their uses.

"I have two Chinese yoke-back chairs, one on either side of my bed," Bulmash told Town & Country. "They're where I sit every morning when I put my socks on."

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