Rare Chinese ‘dragon’ box sale success

A rare Chinese ‘dragon’ box fashioned in the prized Asian wood zitan sold for £110,000 in Essex recently, achieving the top price of the designated Asian Art sale held by Sworders in Stansted Mountfitchet. 

The 49cm wide casket, that would have been used to store precious objects, is made almost exclusively of zitan, a purplish-black, fine-grained timber (so dense that it sinks in water), that was the preferred wood of the imperial workshops. Suitable for fine and intricate carving, in this case the box is adorned with the powerful dynastic images of the five-clawed dragon amidst clouds (symbol of the emperor) and phoenixes (the empress). 

Woman holding antique Chinese box made from zitan

By the early Qing period, zitan had become a very expensive commodity (many of the native species had been exhausted during the Ming dynasty) and its use was carefully controlled. When this box was made by master Chinese carpenters in the 18th or early 19th century, it would have been extraordinarily expensive. It remains so today.

The box, that came for sale from a private seller who inherited it from grandparents who lived in Bullwood Hall, Hockley, Essex between 1930-1950 attracted bids from China, Hong Kong and the UK before selling at a price that, with buyer’s premium added, was £143,000. It was estimated at £1,000-2,000. The buyer was 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 emperor Quianlong. 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.  

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