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NY Times Article about Faux Bamboo

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Where East Meets West

What passion did Leonard Bernstein, James Beard and the decorator Mark Hampton all share? A love of faux-bamboo furniture.

They were not the first, of course; faux bamboo has been popular since the 1860's. "It's so likable, almost no one doesn't like it," said Margot Johnson, a New York dealer in late-19th-century American furniture from the Aesthetic Movement.

"American faux bamboo is fairly rare today because only one company, R. J. Horner, really specialized in manufacturing it, and not much was made," she said. "It is more refined than European faux bamboo. It was bought in the 1890's for the large shingle-style summer houses in Newport and Maine." Both Ms. Johnson and Newel Art Galleries in New York regularly sell faux-bamboo antiques.

On Sept. 25, Doyle New York will auction a large collection of bamboo and faux-bamboo furniture made in the United States, France and Asia. The viewing begins on Sept. 21 at Doyle, 175 East 87th Street, Manhattan. The catalog is on its Web site, http://www.DoyleNewYork.com. The 60 lots include Victorian and Edwardian beds, armoires, desks, bookcases, dressing tables, a fire screen and lots of fanciful chairs.

"I call it the first casual furniture," said John Palatinus, the former owner of Day Lily Hill Antiques in New Hope, Pa., and the consignor at Doyle. He said he was selling his personal collection, acquired over the last 40 years while he was visiting the Netherlands, France, England and Asia.

"I used to be able to find it in New York, when there were a lot of small importers on 11th and 12th Streets," he said. "Then it got scarce." He is selling because he is retiring. "I'm moving to Palm Springs, the epicenter of midcentury modern," he said.

Like bamboo, faux bamboo was introduced to the West via the China trade in the 18th century. (The Chinese have been making faux-bamboo furniture since at least the Ming Dynasty, 1368-1644.) By the time Western trade with Japan began in the 1850's, the appetite for exotic Oriental furniture was at its height. It was featured in international expositions and immediately copied by manufacturers in England and France.

"The French stuff is pretty, useful and durable, but it was always cheaper than American faux bamboo," said Scott Hamilton, a partner in Hamilton-Hyre Ltd., an antiques shop in Mechanicsville, Pa. "Basically, French faux bamboo was used as cheap hotel furniture. Almost all of it is made of pine with maple turnings. If a piece of faux-bamboo furniture has a marble top, it's French."

The English made their faux bamboo with oak, pine and burlwood. Americans often chose maple, especially bird's-eye maple.

"Like other exotic influences, the bamboo craze began in America about the time of the Centennial and reached its peak in the 1880's," Marilyn Johnson, Ms. Johnson's cousin and former associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, wrote in 1970 in "19th-Century America: Furniture and Other Decorative Arts," the catalog for the Met's show of the same title.

Margot Johnson observed that "in the 1880's, Horner had a showroom in New York in the West 20's, where you could go to buy faux bamboo, mixing and matching pieces of all kinds. Other stores must have sold Horner, too, because pieces of Horner furniture surface with different labels on them."

"Horner furniture can be quite complex," she said. "It has little railings and spindles, and hand-turned pulls. It looks delicate, but it's surprisingly sturdy." It can also be quite reasonably priced. The estimates at Doyle start at about $300.

Chinese Furniture

The most important piece of faux bamboo coming up for auction is probably the 17th-century Chinese table in Christie's sale of the Dr. S. Y. Yip Collection of classical Chinese furniture next Friday. A low-slung Kang table of huanghuali, a prized hardwood, it is already on view with the other lots at Christie's at 20 Rockefeller Plaza. The top is a single panel framed with a molded edge carved to simulate bamboo. The legs and spandrels are also faux bamboo. At 11 inches tall, 37 inches long and 24 inches deep, it would make a perfect coffee table. The estimate is $25,000 to $35,000.

Shing Yiu Yip, 68, a Hong Kong dermatologist, has been collecting classical Chinese furniture since the late 1970's. Most of his pieces were acquired from Grace Wu Bruce, a renowned dealer specializing in Ming and Qing antiques, with galleries in Hong Kong and London.

It is a serious collection. It has been featured in 17 exhibitions of Chinese furniture, most recently at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. For five years, Dr. Yip has also been putting together a book on the history of Chinese furniture. "I have already signed up nine authors, including two archaeologists and a museum curator," he said. "I don't have a publisher yet, but the book should come out in Chinese in a couple of years. Then we will translate it."

Dr. Yip is selling half of his collection, mainly duplicates. The 68 lots include beds, bookshelves, 3 pairs of chairs, 16 tables, 3 screens, several cabinets, a footrest and an amazing variety of stands (for basins, incense burners, clothes, braziers and weighing scales). Most of the pieces are huanghuali, many in the severely plain style favored by Westerners.

For guidance in organizing his sale, Dr. Yip went to Timothy Sammons, an Englishman who acts as an agent on behalf of art sellers. "My role is a cross between consulting and brokering, and often involves estate planning," said Mr. Sammons, a lawyer with offices in London and New York. Coincidentally, he was at Sotheby's for 14 years in the Chinese department, both in New York and in Hong Kong. "Dr. Yip's is the largest sale of Ming furniture at auction since the Renaissance sale," Mr. Sammons said, referring to Christie's $11.2 million sale of 107 lots from the former Museum of Classical Chinese Furniture in Renaissance, Calif., in 1996.

He advised Dr. Yip to sell at Christie's. "I am not employed by any auction house," Mr. Sammons said. "Dr. Yip and I considered selling the collection privately, but there are too many pieces. If there is a possibility of reaching new markets, an auction is the way to do it."

Then came the question of location. "I advised Dr. Yip to sell in New York, not Hong Kong, though we did manage to have an exhibition there in April, which isn't normally done, due to space constrictions," Mr. Sammons continued. "This allowed people to come in from mainland China, Taiwan and Southeast Asia. On the strength of that, some Chinese have applied for visas to come to New York for the sale. Others will bid by phone."

Dr. Yip concurred. "Classical Chinese furniture is more prized in the West than Asia," he said. "They look at it in terms of function. In the West, it has become a sculptural art form."

His timing may be good. "I'm the only kid on the block who is willing to sell some of his Chinese furniture right now," he said.

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