I have butterflies.
Much with the same fervor that people stand outside in all kinds of weather to get first dibs on tickets to rock concerts I rose very early this morning to simply have a chance to purchase a chair at an estate sale.
The sale opens at 10 AM, permanent numbers replace our temporary ones at 9. As I write this I have been sitting on my yoga mat on the front steps of this house since 7 AM – a pad of pink Post-it notes (provided by a neighbor) and a magic marker beside me. An Asian man just walked up the sidewalk to hand me #4 – as I was about to give him #2 – even as I had #1 in my own hand. This terrifies me. The fact that this man (previously unknown from any other estate sale I have attended locally in the last five years) has just appeared somehow validates my research as there is no other Oriental (anything) being offered in the sale; he has been here since 5 AM.
Let me just say that initially this was not about scoring a precious antique. At first sighting for the sale online my thought was ‘PERFECTLY scaled for Cliff’ – my soon to be divorced neighbor and his three daughters for whom I have been decorating over the last year – with a cushion to be made of yellow silk fabric scored at another estate sale over the summer. I have spent four days doing research on this chair simply wanting to establish that the $250 asking price was reasonable (in case Cliff didn’t agree with my oeuvre and I had to sell it on eBay to recover my outlay).
Starting with Google Images and the search words “antique Chinese chairs” I drilled down through the plethora of results. But with this research I started discovering anomalies, eventually narrowing the pool of chairs down to just two similar pieces to the one that sits just out of my reach on the other side of that massive entry door. (At least stylistically) the chair is consistent to an 18th century, humpback low rail, southern Chinese Official’s Chair in yellow pear wood – known amongst the cognoscenti as HUANGHUALI. Chairs sold at Bonham’s and Christie’s Hong Kong auction houses for just over $15,000 and $251,000 respectively (the images below link back to their websites)!! I don’t ‘know’ what the chair ‘waiting for me’ actually is – yet.
7:20AM a second Asian man – most likely also Chinese – has just arrived. OHGAWD. I have a cheerleading squad of course, and I am hopeful that my intention and their collective karmic energy help me prevail but, still…
Once I narrowed the design aesthetic down I sent emails off to Christie’s, Bonham’s, Sotheby’s, Doyle, Leigh Keno (of PBS Antiques Road Show fame), and two others with the original hyperlinks to the auction pieces asking how I might consign a similar piece with them. Nearly all have responded (some within twenty minutes of my email) asking for exhaustive images. So, at least as you read this, you start to understand why my stomach feels like I am going to throw up!
8:09 AM, an Asian woman has just shown up and joined the conversation with the two men. More butterflies.
I decide to go for a walk around the back of the house as there is supposed to be a charming garden. I take solace that with this mid-September date the seed heads for the extravagant lilies are in place and as a gardener pluck these to bring home and plant in the garden – taking solace that no matter what happens something good will come of all these hours waiting this morning.
I have taken a woman named Kathy into my confidence – the house is big, I know from the estate sale manager that he has fielded five other calls about the chair, I need help. She is SO LOVELY and agrees, asks specifically what I would like her to do. She’s brilliant, interested, keen to learn, hopeful for me – the sincerity of her being is like tiny soap bubbles carried on summer breezes.
Suddenly the sale manager and another gentleman are rearranging cars. I take a chance and approach the unknown older gentleman, ask him if it is his house. Yes, it is. Ask him if he would mind if I asked him about the Chinese chair. He’s lovely, tells me the story of how he acquired it – through an antique dealer in Provincetown, MA (hmm, I am pretty sure I have actually been in the shop!). Assures me that it isn’t fragile, certainly functional. Whew… so, no matter what (assuming I am lucky) it is going to be useful.
9 AM, our temporary numbers are swapped for permanent ones. The person who had #2 is nowhere to be seen. If you have never attended an estate sale, the etiquette is you stay on the premises until permanent numbers are given out, if you don’t the “mass” polices the offender and ensures you do not get ‘your’ number. As a result I have just moved from #4 to #3, and Kathy is now #6. I know that the man who holds #2 (now) is interested in Mid-Century modern furniture and signed artworks from the same period – this leaves me and #1 with the chair.
9:23 AM another Asian man has just arrived. Less polite than the others, he seems even aggressive with them in his dialogue. His number will be 30 and he’s not happy about it. He’s climbed up on the porch ‘railing’ to peer into the living room window. He’s speaking rapid fire Chinese. He jumps down, storms off to his mini-van and drives away. OH. Dear.
9:50 AM, the door opens, the estate sale manager comes out to address the crowd (interesting contrast in style to all the other sale managers over the years) on where things are, how many will be allowed in, terms of sale and then, he allows the first 15 of us in. In my excitement, and plan with Kathy it is she who actually sits down in the chair to claim it for me!!! The universe smiles, my eyes fill up with tears of gratitude.
I change places with her – it’s a comfortable piece of furniture. The wood feels ‘right’ (like old silk) under my hands but I turn it over, put on my glasses, and examine the construction, the finish, the oxidization and the wear. Some of it is ‘spot on’ – like the wear on the bottom of the feet and the front rail, it’s not soft wood (can’t mark it with my fingernail in a discrete place), the mortise and tenon joints are also ‘right’ and the S shaped back splat is exquisitely carved with what I think are entwined lotus blossoms. The finish doesn’t have the kind of wear on the arms that I expected and the hard caned seat shown in the Bonham’s and Christie’s chairs is missing on “mine” (which I obviously already knew). What is totally unexpected are tiny old metal brackets surrounding the joints – almost as if holding the chair together. They aren’t ‘normal’ and are like a silent alarm in my head when I see them. The first two Asian men find me on the floor, nod, kneel beside me and the chair, they pull out very small flashlights, ask if I am buying it, how much it is, nod again, then start examining it. They don’t think the oxidization is ‘enough’; they shake their heads ‘no’ in unison. “Nice chair, not old.” My intuition has been tottering during my inspection – but the truth is I don’t really know intellectually what level of antique my hands are running over, I am not an expert. I buy it anyway – $271 with tax – seems that after all this effort even if it’s just a ‘nice chair’ this great story is worth every penny. As I leave two people congratulate me on scoring the ‘nice chair’ (I smile).
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