April 20, 2022

The Mystery of the Singular Table: An extraordinary Chinese table, not only rich in decoration, but in provenance as well.

Lark Ernest Mason
Chinese Gold and Silver Wire Inlaid Table, Qing Dynasty

The Chinese imperial workshops in Beijing and Guangzhou (Canton) produced works for the imperial court in Beijing, including bronzes, clocks, jade carvings, furniture and other works of art.  Some of these items are identifiable through records, others have specialized marks, but the majority of items are only identifiable by the high quality workmanship which relates to other similar works that have a verified provenance or direct association with the Palace or other imperial residences. With the exception of thrones, furniture rarely is identifiable as having an imperial provenance aside from making an attribution based on aspects of high-quality workmanship of similar objects. The rectangular stand offered in Lark Mason Associates auction sale that ends on April 26, 27 fits into this category. The stand is constructed of a dense, highly figured wood which incorporates a variety of woodworking techniques usually associated with small boxes and stands but not large-scale furniture. Rarely are these techniques used together. Gold and silver inlay wire cover the near entirety of the stand beginning along the upper border of the top, the recessed waist, and the  rounded upper part of the apron, pierced and carved openwork carving, and the arched stretcher and supporting brackets, as well as stylized vine-scroll designs on the legs. In addition to the silver and gold wire, the surface has stippled designs within silver-wire outlined foliate and scrollwork forms. The extraordinary fine quality of the wire-inlay workmanship and stippled surface is equalled by the fluid, beautifully carved zoomorphic and angular designs, which incorporate finely beaded edges  and complicated interlaced patterns. The stand is a masterwork of the highest quality and its also a mystery. How did such a finely crafted table, obviously created for a very specialized purpose, find its way from China to the west? Unlike many objects whose past is lost, we have clues with this table that illuminate some of the past history. I can verify that it previously appeared at auction because it was cataloged and handled by me. It was consigned to Sotheby’s Chinese department during the summer of 1993 where I researched and prepared it for a sale that took place on November 30. At the time, I remember puzzling over its background, fully aware of the high-quality and likely imperial association but not able to discover much about it.  Though I could not prove an imperial provenance it realized a very strong price that was well over the estimate range, totaling over $18,000 in the auction sale. Nearly three decades later, the same table came back to me consigned by a colleague on the Antiques Roadshow who sent images to me, knowing my expertise in furniture, in the hopes we could identify and sell it. Though its mysterious background was not divulged thirty years ago, I now had another chance. Along with the Sotheby’s auction label on the underside, there are two other labels: one is a blue chinoiserie bordered rectangular paste label that is now yellowed from oxidation of the wood it is attached to, and with a pre-printed R and a dotted line for a number into which someone has written in pale, faded brown ink ‘6138.’ The other tag is a printed circular label on which is printed J.E.Taylor Collection and in the center is written in a different hand than the other written number, ‘651B.’ The printing on the label is off-center and like the other label, oxidized brown.

The rectangular label seemed difficult to identify but tantalizing. ‘Was this an inventory label of a prior collector? A record of a sale?’ The asianesque blue-border-pattern inferred an association with an Asian institution or collector or source, but after a limited exploration, I found nothing in my searches nor from my few shared images with colleagues. John Edward Taylor, 1791-1844 was a successful cotton manufacturer in Manchester, England and founder in 1821 of the Manchester Guardian. His son, the likely owner of this table, was also John Edward Taylor (1830-1905) and went by Edward. He was the co-owner of the Manchester Guardian in 1852 and sole owner by 1856 and then the owner of the Manchester Evening News from 1868 until his death in 1905.  

Chinese Gold and Silver Wire Inlaid Table, Qing Dynasty

China during the late 19th and early 20th century was rapidly changing and under the direction of the Dowager Empress Cixi, whose extravagance and control of the government are visible today in the new Summer Palace edifice in Beijing. Its unlikely that Taylor would have purchased such an item in the later years of his life. Born in 1830, Taylor would have been 70 in 1900 and chances are that the table was purchased prior to this date. Its highly unlikely that the tag is a collectors tag, but much more likely that it is an auction company tag and the number 651B, indicates that this table was one of a pair, not a single item or the table was a stand for an object which was meant to be displayed on the table. Theres no indication from the table about the auction house nor that it was an auction house, except that the label printing is off-center, something that any collector would not tolerate but would be tolerated in a short-term identification of an item for sale at auction. One of the records discovered in the internet search for John Taylor mentioned that his works were sold at auction in 1912.

In July 1912, his estate was sold by Christie’s in a spectacular series of sales. It received first page articles in the New York Times and other publications and realized over $2,000,000 at the time of the sale for Old Master Paintings, French Furniture and Works of Art, and Chinese Works of Art and other items. This table, Lot 651b, as is indicated on additional notes on a catalogue page, was purchased by Agnew's in London with Dickinson as the underbidder. It realized 65 pounds. Today's equivalent would be $65,000. In 1993 the table again came up on the auction block, consigned to Sotheby's, New York and catalogued by Lark Mason, it realized over $18,000 on November 30, 1993, Lot 393.

The quality of workmanship for the table is indicative of an imperial provenance and very likely an 18th century date. The greatest number of works that entered into the marketplace with an imperial association occurred during 1860 when British and French troops in China sought retribution for war-time atrocities against the Emperor of China by looting and burning his prized summer residence, the Yuan Ming Yuan. The Yuan Ming Yuan was designed in a European style by Jesuit architects and housed a collection of Chinese and western-style works of art in a series of buildings within an extensive garden setting. Originally well-maintained, by the mid-19th century the buildings were less so and after the sacking were burned, leaving only rubble.

Chinese Gold and Silver Wire Inlaid Table, Qing Dynasty

Whether a stand for a prized work of art or a mate to another similar table, the mystery of the Table is still in place. I cannot place it at the Yuan Ming Yuan, but it is plausible. I can verify that it was owned by John Taylor but it is only conjecture that he purchased it and perhaps whatever sat on it, sometime after 1860 when he would have been a young man making a name with his professional career. It is much more likely that the acquisition took place around or after 1870 when he would have been a comfortable professional collecting works by Turner and perhaps Chinese works of art offered for sale in London through one of the auctions selling items from the Yuan Ming Yuan. Though I doubt I will encounter the table again, perhaps the next owner will build on the clues that have reluctantly been divulged by this amazing object and the elusive rectangular tag will be deciphered.