St. Matthias Anglican Church in Victoria is $630,000 wealthier after five minutes of frantic bidding on two 17-century Chinese chairs at Sotheby’s in New York.
For decades, the wooden Huanghuali armchairs (Sichutou Guanmaoyi) dating back 300 years to the Qing (pronounced “Ching”) dynasty, sat unnoticed at the back of the nave in the financially struggling church. Just when the rosewood antiques were donated– and by whom–remains a mystery.
“They were fondly familiar fixtures in the church, but this [windfall] will allow us to do some creative things that we couldn’t do before, so I can’t say I am sad to see them go,” says the Rev. Robert Arril, St. Matthias’ rector.
In 2010, the chairs, assumed to be replicas, caught the sharp eye of a woman knowledgeable about Oriental antiques. Seated in one of the chairs, Arril was leading a Bible class when he noticed the woman regarding him closely. “Actually it was the chair she was looking at,” he recalls.
The chairs’ well-worn feet suggested their antique origins. After appraisal by local experts, they sold at a Sept. 11 Sotheby’s auction for $758,500 (including a buyer’s premium).
According to Sotheby’s catalogue, the chairs’ worth was pegged at $180,000 to $250,000. Large yokeback armchairs such as these were a core feature of the furnishings of the classical Chinese household, and this pair was bought by a private collector in China, where there’s a growing impetus to repatriate Chinese antiquities from abroad.
Lucky for St. Matthias. When Arril arrived at the church in March 2009, the congregation had dwindled to just 30 people. About 95 per cent of its former parishioners had defected to join the Anglican Network in Canada, an exodus prompted by a disagreement over same-sex marriage.
Today, attendance has more than doubled, and St. Matthias is steering a forward course. “Three and half years into the ‘burn,’ we’re working with a national church consultant and developing a strategic ministry plan,” says Arril.
Several programs sponsored by St. Matthias, including outreach services for single mothers and homeless people, will directly benefit from the sale. The church also runs a small on-site apartment complex for low-income seniors.
So far, the spots once occupied by the mysterious chairs remain empty, but their benign absence is definitely having an impact.