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A magnificent pair of extremely rare carved gold lacquer bookcases. Mark and Period of Wanli

each with evenly-spaced two shelves housed within a rectangular structure, heavily carved on the front of the 'gold thread' nanmu framework with eight pairs of confronting dragons centered on a ruyi-shaped cloud, above jagged chevrons representing mountains at the base of the legs, the sides divided into three sections, each with a square panel with canted corners and a cusped top frame, containing a pair of confronting dragons centered on a 'flaming pearl' amid a cloud ground above rocks and water, covered overall in a bright golden lacquer with gold leaf added on top, the interior lacquered with a thin layer of red over the rich golden ground with dense cracklure, the areas of peeled lacquer revealing the linen ground, the backside further lacquered in gold paint and gold leaf with two characters carved on one of the transverse braces of one of the cabinets reading wu (five), and traces of an inscribed reign mark in gold over the red lacquer with the characters Da Ming Wanli nian. 151 by 91 by 50.5 cm. 59 1/2 by 35 3/4 by 19 7/8 in. Estimate 15,000,000—20,000,000 HKD

NOTE: These bookcases are made from precious golden thread nanmu wood.1 The outside surfaces consist entirely of cloud and dragon carving in high-relief and are painted gold. The bookcases are divided into three shelves; the front is completely open, and the entire frame as well as the two inner stretchers are decorated with the clouds and dragons design. The four legs are rather high and carved with the Five Sacred Mountains pattern, the earliest decorative design motif found on Chinese furniture. Each pair of legs is spanned by small apron-head spandrels that form joints between apron and legs. The two sides of the bookcases are joined to the frame by mortise-bearing frame members and are inlaid with three ornamental panels, inside each of which a pair of dragons play with a pearl carved in high-relief . The carved dragons are full of vigour and power. This exterior decoration is painted entirely in gold over red plain lacquer, and although much has peeled off, one can still see much of the gold paint cover, which fully enhances the vigorous workmanship of the dragon designs.

When one takes into consideration the particular characteristics of the form of the bookcases and the style of the dragon carvings—thin necks, bodies thick and strong, five claws furiously extended with such vigour, the back fins whether large or small so freely placed, whole figures so bold and rough, uninhibited by conventions of design yet entirely impressive and dignified—they are utterly unlike dragon designs of the late Ming period. In addition, the shape of the single ruyi cloud designs are rather more rounded and plump, so compared to Yuan and Ming dragons on laquerware and porcelain they seem more to match early Ming or an even earlier design style. From the historical point of view, we should be aware that with every change of dynasty large-scale destruction of arts and crafts took place followed by reconstruction of new types and styles, in addition to which hundreds of years of damage due to natural causes occurred, so the fact that these early palace lacquered wood furniture pieces were fortunate to survive up to now makes them as rare as phoenix feathers or dragons scales. Therefore, this surviving pair of bookcases is possibly the earliest extant pieces of palace furniture. Moreover, the fact that the two form a completely matched pair is an even rarer occurance; all this indicates that they possess the highest historical status and artistic value.

The backs of the bookcases have dragon designs drawn in gold tracery, but these have now worn away. At the top of one of the bookcases where the dark grey lacquer which once covered it, has peeled off, a carved inscription appears, of which only the character wu (five) can be clearly read. As for the other characters, the painted lacquer on that part has to be removed before we can unravel the mystery of what they are—but most likely the inscription has to do with the date and place of manufacture. On the surface of the outermost layer of red lacquer there remains the traces of a regular script inscription in gold, "Made in the Wanli reign of the Great Ming Dynasty." This is surely an inscription that records a renovation of the piece after it was done during the Wanli era. Besides inscriptions that record renovations, according to Mr. Zhu Jiajin, Zhongguo qiqi quanji (Comprehensive Collection of Chinese Laquerware), Vol. 5: Ming Dynasty: "Carved pieces which bear a Xuande inscription sometimes are instead chisel-engraved and filled-in with gold paint over a Yongle finely incised inscription that had been sanded off. . . . Woodworkers of the Xuande era were still the same woodworkers of the Yongle era, so it could not have been because the 'workshop pieces did not measure up to the former workmanship' that the inscriptions were changed. Therefore, the common practice began the Yongle and Xuande periods to record the date of pieces by reign, a practice which clearly sets official workshop manufacture from that done by non-governmental workshops. There may be other reasons to explain why Xuande-inscribed pieces had their reign title inscriptions changed; reign title inscriptions on pieces left by the previous dynasty were obliterated and changed to a new reign title inscription. Since not even one or two pieces out of a hundred in the Palace Museum in Beijing bear inscriptions, the absolute rarity of such pieces means that these pieces here can provide researchers today with crucial supplementary evidence.

See a cabinet in Wang Shixiang, Connoisseurship of Chinese Furniture, Hong Kong, 1990, Plate D28, p. 154 with an illustration of a round-corner cabinet with a door with four horizontal members (the whole piece covered with carved dragons), bearing the inscription "Manufacture Supervised for Imperial Use During the Longqing Reign of the Great Ming Dynasty" (fig. 1). This type of piece most closely resembles the pieces of furniture completely covered with carving, though the carving technique of the dragon designs is somewhat softer, and the size of the dragons is rather larger. However, these bookcases show that before the Longqing period this style of imperial furniture, completely covered with dragon designs, already existed.

Another piece illustrated in Zhu Jiajin, Gugong bowuyuan cang wenwu zhenpin daxi: Ming qing jiaju (The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum: Furniture of the Ming and Qing Dynasties), Vol. 1, Shanghai, 2002, Plates on p. 189 and p. 229: Hongwu shilu jingui (Safe Box for the Veritable records of the Hongwu Reign), is the earliest small-scale piece of imperial furniture in the Palace Museum. It is made of nanmu and covered in gold paint, with high-relief clouds and dragons carvings whose early Ming-style closely resembles the style of the dragon design on this pair of bookshelves.

1Golden Thread nanmu wood is impermeable to water, mosquitoes will not live in it, it does not rot, insects do not bore into it, and it has a delicate fragrance. Its colour is pale orange with a slight grayish green cast. It has a delicate, elegant grain, a warm and tender texture and luster like that of silk or satin. It suffers little shrinkage, its fragrance lasts and lasts, and even after a thousand years it does not rot but appear everlasting new. According to the Bowu yaolan (Essential Survey of All Things of Interest) [by Gu Yingtai (1620-1690)], "Golden Thread nanmu is taken from deep ravines in the mountains of Sichuan. Its grain seems to consist of golden threads, and it has a fine and closely woven texture. It is as soft as pine, its colour ocher with a slight green cast. If one holds it toward the light, its grain seems to have waves in it, and the golden threads that run through it horizontally and vertically dazzle one with their loveliness." Since its grain has this gold tread luster, it is generally known as Golden Thread nan wood. The beauty of this wood is so extraordinary that nothing else like it exists in the world, so it is also called the Emperor Tree.

Since ancient times nanmu has been a material prized by monarchs and the highest elite, therefore from the time the Ming dynasty founded its capital at Beijing during the Yongle era and the Ming imperial tombs were constructed during the Xuande era up to the time of reconstruction of the Wanli era, it was used in ever more quantities. But its reputation and value were established at the great cost of human suffering and damage to resources. In a memorial to the Jiajing emperor Yan Song (1480-1565) observed that it was obvious that the hardships involved in cutting such trees, the dangers involved in transporting them, and the difficulties besetting draft labourers who do the work, it is just as the folksong goes: "When a thousand woodcutters enter the mountains, /Only five hundred ever come out" –ample evidence of how difficult it was to obtain such wood. During the Wanli era, Supervising Secretary in the Office of Scrutiny of Works Wang Dewan and Censor Kuang Shangjin addressed the sufferings imposed on the people of Sichuan because of this timbering operation in such a detailed memorial as to contain this: "The count of deaths in one county alone is close to one thousand, and for the whole province it is not less than one hundred thousand." After all the destruction of the five hundred years that spanned the many disastrous fires that occurred during the Ming and Qing, the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, and the wreckage caused by the Cultural Revolution. Fine quality nanmu furniture are extremely rare compared to zitan and huanghuali furniture.

Sotheby's. Ming Imperial Furniture- The Biegucang Collection. 08 Apr 09. Hong Kong www.sothebys.com photo courtesy Sotheby's