Alice Karle Appraisal

Fine & Decorative Art

Imperial Zitan Chair

Imperial Zitan Chair
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Imperial Zitan Chair

Fair Market Value Appraisal 
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In August of 2005, just as the market for Chinese antiques was beginning to rise, we already had begun to learn the details of Chinese art and antiques, and were engaged to work on an estate appraisal containing a mystery chair. According to family history the chair was a copy of  the throne of Cixi (Tz’u-hsi), known as the Dowager Empress (1835–1908). The chair was given to an American military gentleman serving in China circa 1900 towards the end of the reign of the Dowager Empress from 1861 to 1908. It had been passed down in his family’s collection for about 100 years. 

Well, it was immediately apparent that the form wasn’t a copy of a throne. But when was the chair made, where was it made, and what was it made from? To the Western observer, there were quite a few contradictions. The chair seemed too finely carved, and not really the style of Chinese Rococo Revival furniture made during Cixi’s rule. It more resembled the designs of Western Rococo furniture, especially those of Thomas Chippendale, whose designs in turn had been influenced by the Chinese. During Chippendale’s time in the mid 1700’s the shipping trade between China and Europe flourished, with China being a major influence on European design.

There was quite a bit of wood shrinkage, which occurs over a long period of time, but no dovetails or other signs of hand joinery to indicate a date before the Industrial Revolution. The underside was completely smooth, which might at first glance be taken for machine finishing. Western 18th century furniture is not finished in areas that aren’t seen. On this same note, the back side of the crest rail and splat were almost as elaborately carved as the front, with carving that was fluid and expertly done. Again, this could be taken as an indication of a later date of production, towards circa 1900. 

Research with the Peabody Essex Museum showed the mystery Men’s Chair was Chinese 18th century, influenced by the designs of the Jesuit Guiseppe Castiglione. The chair appeared to be made of a highly prized extremely slow growing hardwood, known as zitan (purple sandalwood). Although there is no carved Imperial emblem, the chair is of Imperial quality.

Complex hidden joinery is associated with Imperial Chinese Furniture but was not used in the West, explaining the absence of dovetails. Hidden joinery and completely smooth finishing of all surfaces are characteristic of this quality Chinese furniture. The wood is gold flecked zitan, often reserved for important pieces in the reign of the Qianlong (Ch’ien-lung) Emperor. European influenced Imperial furniture is also termed Guangzhou style for the workshops in which it was created.

We have come full circle. Chinese designs influenced European Rococo furniture, and the aesthetic of Castiglione in turn influenced the court furniture of the Qianlong Emperor. Thanks to Bruce MacLaren, then of the Peabody Essex Museum for helping with the original research. Special appreciation to Lark Mason, the expert who looked at our photos while he was on vacation, and came in person to definitively confirm the origin, date, wood species, and quality.

This Imperial Zitan Chair has remained in the family. The chair was exhibited at Frank H. McClung Museum at University of Tennessee in Knoxville, for several years on a temporary loan.