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Dragon box in revered Chinese hardwood sells for $180,480 at UK auction

The 49cm/19.3-inch-wide casket, which would have been used to store precious objects, is composed almost exclusively of purplish-black, fine-grained zitan, a wood so dense, it sinks in water. Zitan was the preferred wood of the Chinese imperial workshops. It is especially suitable for fine and intricate carving. The box sold by Sworders was adorned with the powerful dynastic images of the five-clawed dragon amidst clouds (symbol of the emperor) and phoenixes (the empress).

By the early Qing period, zitan had become a very expensive commodity, primarily because many of the native tree species had been exhausted during the Ming dynasty. Accordingly, zitan’s use after that period was carefully controlled. 

When the dragon box was made by master Chinese carpenters in the 18th or early 19th century, it would have been extraordinarily expensive, and it remains so today. The box offered by Sworders came from a private seller who inherited it from grandparents who lived in Bullwood Hall, Hockley, Essex, between 1930 and 1950. 

The seller recalled, “The box has stored some family papers, but my memories are having my father’s various hats stored on top of it.” 

Entered with an estimate of $1,260-$2,520, the box attracted bids from China, Hong Kong and the UK before selling at a price that was the British equivalent of $180,480, inclusive of buyer’s premium. The buyer is from China. 

“Zitan is China’s most revered wood, and this dragon chest was superbly carved, suggesting it was made in the imperial workshops, perhaps in the reign of the Qianlong Emperor. It was not in perfect condition – it had several cracks – but buyers agreed it was another special discovery by Sworders team,” said Yexue Li, Head of Asian Sales at Sworders.

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