The chairs as they appeared in the Fine Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art catalogue, New York, 11th & 12th September 2012, lot 218.
NEW YORK - When auctioneer Henry Howard-Sneyd said ‘Not to your bidder Harold, going to the gentleman in the front, lot 218, $630,000,’ I felt a huge sense of relief. Relief because the lot had made more than twice its high estimate of $250,000. The gavel went down and it was done. The person I was phone bidding with, was however, a little disappointed. ‘Those are good chairs’ he said, just before we hung up.
I was also relieved because two parishioners from the church that owned the lot were sitting in the audience right in front of me. I may have had to endure their disappointed glances, if the lot had not done well. As it was, the lady parishioner was shedding tears of joy.
Lot 218 was a pair of huanghuali yokeback armchairs, dated to the Qing dynasty, 17th century, a period considered a golden age of Chinese furniture when great materials, elegant design and superb craftsmanship combined to produce what some consider ‘perfect’ chairs.
The chairs had been discovered in a church in Victoria, British Columbia. They had sat in the nave of St. Matthias Church, and had been used by servers and other people taking part in the liturgy. In March 2009, 250 members of its congregation left to join the more conservative Anglican Network in Canada, after a disagreement over same-sex marriage. Since St. Matthias relied on financial contributions from its congregation, with only about 30 members left, the church was in deep financial straits and had to rent out its hall and other meeting rooms. During a meeting to discuss the church’s finances, a parishioner who had knowledge of Chinese art suggested that they contact some auction houses to find out if the chairs were authentic 17th century Chinese chairs.
The chairs in use at the St. Matthias Anglican Church, the Rev. Dr. Robert Arril, Rector (left) and The Rev. Eric Partridge, Deacon (right).
When we received the pictures in the Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department, we knew they were something good and someone would have to make a trip to clinch the deal. I flew out to Vancouver, took a taxi to Tsawwassen, then a ferry to Swartz Bay, where I was met by the rector of the church who drove me in his sports car to Victoria to see the chairs. In all, the trip from Vancouver to Victoria took four hours. I had spoken to Rev. Bob Arril before. While making arrangements for him to meet me, he had asked if I had a lot of luggage. At the time the question had struck me a bit odd. But now I realized that it was because his sports car was a two-seater with hardly any trunk space to speak of.
The ferrry to Swartz Bay.
Once the church had realized how valuable the chairs were, they had been removed from the nave to the treasurer’s house for safe keeping. When we arrived, I was greeted by members of the church council and led to an upstairs bedroom. The sunlight was streaming in, and when the light hit the chairs, the wood gave off a golden glow. The typical grain of huanghuali, a type of tropical hardwood, with its alternating light and dark streaks was clearly visible. At that point I knew that the trip had been worth it. However, I now had to convince the church council to entrust the chairs to us.
The council members had prepared a list of seventeen questions. Some of them sat on the bed, while others stood around me as I maintained a half-kneeling position next to the chairs. The chairs belonged to the church and they had to be sure that they were making the right choice, if they were to go with Sotheby’s.
These types of chairs used to have metal mounts. The shadow of the mounts still remains on this pair. Many chairs have had such shadows polished away.
As it turned out, Sotheby’s certainly was the right choice. Including the buyer’s premium, the chairs made $758,500, when the gavel went down on September 11, 2012.
Once I had a chance to leave the phone-bidding table, I went outside the auction room. The two parishioners were sitting by the reception. The gentleman had been at the church treasurer’s house when I first inspected the chairs. He was busy with his iPad – no doubt spreading the word about the great price the chairs received. We shook hands and I asked if they were pleased. The lady stood up, threw her hands in the air and said ‘this is a wonderful place, a truly wonderful place.’
This may not have been the highest priced lot in the sale, that saw 6 lots cross the million-dollar mark, but it is certainly the one that I will remember. The proceeds from the sale of lot 218 will now allow the church to continue many of their community programs. Not only does the congregation help out at the Rainbow Kitchen, the Mustard Seed Food Bank, Our Place, Project Upgrade at Camosun College and the Primate’s World Relief and Development Fund, but the church also runs a 24-hour housing facility for low-income seniors. All the time while worrying over their finances, little did the church know that they had been sitting on the answer to their prayers.