Posted by: mel | October 3, 2009

Celebrating antique beauty

Jakarta Post | Susanna Tjokro ,  Contributor ,  Jakarta | Lifestyle | 3 October 2009

A shrine. A four-poster bed. Altars and cabinets and tables. It was impossible not to be awed by the beautiful pieces of peranakan furniture arranged at Denindo Auction House.

Peranakan Chinese teak armchair or Hak Su Le (19th century; height: 101 cm; width: 53.5 cm). Courtesy of Denindo Auction House

Peranakan Chinese teak armchair or Hak Su Le (19th century; height: 101 cm; width: 53.5 cm). Courtesy of Denindo Auction House

The auction house’s collection themed “A Celebration of Peranakan Tionghoa Household”, gave visitors a chance to feast their eyes on a range of items of peranakan furniture, as well as non-peranakan artworks such as paintings, art-nouveau furniture and Japanese and Chinese antiques.

“Peranakan”, although technically the term used to refer to native-born Indonesians of mixed Indonesian and any foreign ancestry, is most commonly applied to the peranakan Chinese – descendants of early Chinese immigrants who partially adopted indigenous customs through either acculturation or intermarriage with indigenous communities.

Hence “peranakan furniture” usually refers to furniture made locally by or for members of this group, rather than being imported from China; with its mix of Chinese and Indonesian features, it is unique to the region.

“Peranakan furniture was developed approximately from the late 18th century to the early 20th century and it became extinct after art nouveau came into vogue,” said Rusdi Tjahyadi, a peranakan furniture enthusiast, curator and collector. Rusdi is also one of eight authors of Peranakan Tionghoa Indonesia, Sebuah Perjalanan Budaya, (Indonesia’s Chinese Descendants: A Cultural Journey).

One item at the auction, for example, a striking, very elaborate late-19th-century cabinet carved with gilt floral motifs, was quite distinct from other such cabinets.

According to Musa Jonatan, another co-author of the book and one of the curators at Denindo Auction House, the cabinet (photo far right) is a blend of peranakan Chinese and Padang (West Sumatra) elements.

“You can see the influence of Malay culture in this cabinet as it is packed with gilt ornate designs from top to bottom,” Musa said.

A 19th-century peranakan shrine (photo bottom right), however, he added, it is clearly from Java.

“It definitely is influenced by Javanese culture. Look at the roosters: They resemble the roosters which are usually placed on the roofs of the houses in Central Java and East Java,” Musa said.

These origins helped find a buyer: Dr Boedi Mranata, the only bidder, who paid Rp 17 million.

“I bought that shrine because I come from East Java, so that somehow it connects to my roots,” he said.

Gilt carvings are a common feature in peranakan furniture and add to its value.

“Genuine peranakan furniture uses real gold in the form of gold foil,” Musa said. “The fakes simply use gold-colored paint which does not contain gold at all – the difference is visible even to the naked eye.”

Designs for peranakan furniture tend to favor floral and animal motifs, each with a specific meaning.

“As with Chinese antiques, the details in peranakan decorative objects, including furniture, are rich in symbolism,” Rusdi said. “For instance, a bat, or pien fu in Chinese, sounds very similar to the Chinese word for *luck’, and the five bat carvings on a piece of furniture symbolize the five blessings from heaven: longevity, wealth, health, virtue and natural death.”

Unlike in some parts of the art world, where large sums are shelled out more for the name of the creator than the aesthetic value of the artwork, in peranakan furniture, the craftsman’s name has no importance. Peranakan furniture is valued according to its overall condition (values drop a lot for imperfections), age, rarity, craftsmanship and materials.

Usually, as Rusdi pointed out, the most saleable items of peranakan furniture are functional, such as chairs and cabinets. Big four-poster beds, however, are less desirable, probably because they require so much space.

Of the items at this particular collection, Rusdi and Musa agreed that a particular peranakan cabinet, Lot 231 (photo left), and a three-piece set of peranakan armchairs called Hak Su Ie were the most valuable.

Lot 231 stood out from the other cabinets because it had exquisite design and craftsmanship, and was in mint condition.

“The better the original condition of the item, the higher its value will be,” Rusdi said. “If restoration has been done, the value will be lower.”

The cabinet’s motifs too were favorable, including Buddhist lions, which is a guardian of the house. The opening bid was Rp 25 million; its hammer price was Rp 35 million.

The Hak Su Ie armchairs (made in the 19th century) were designed to “force” you to sit upright – according to Musa, Chinese Hak Su Ie chairs are seats for the intellectuals and scholars – which meant they rather lacked comfort (photo above).

But their buyer – again, Dr Boedi Mranata – said that he bought them not for comfort, but for their value (hammer price: Rp 40 million), although, he added, “I was told that the complete set consists of four armchairs”. The armchairs, made of teak in the 19th century, were in rare mint condition; each bears delicate foliate carvings and is adorned with inlaid decorations on burl wood.

As with other items of peranakan furniture, the armchairs are rich in symbolism.

“For example, the horse means success and speed, the book and pen symbolize intellectuals and scholars,” Musa said.

Musa explained that the Hak Su Ie armchairs were of high value even without any gilt carvings because of the superb materials used and the exquisite craftsmanship.

Easily the most eye-catching item was a fancy, very rare 19th-century teak carriage, carved with birds, flowers, qilin (Chinese unicorn) and other symbols in rich gilt (photo top left). Despite its rarity, Boedi was the only bidder, claiming it for Rp 55 million. He believes the small cart was a made-to-order luxury, probably used by the children of an affluent peranakan Chinese family as a toy carriage.

Boedi, a seventh-generation peranakan Chinese, bought all the finest peranakan items at that auction. Like any true collector, he claims he has no plans to sell any of his antique. Rather, he said, he is driven by the pleasure of owning beautiful pieces and by a desire to create a legacy for future generations.

Peranakan furniture also appeals to buyers who are not of Chinese descent. One was Adang Soenarto, who bought several items, including a small 19th-century sedan chair used as a seat for a deity during a ceremony.

“I admire peranakan Chinese furniture because of its craftsmanship,” said Adang, the only bidder for the item. “I bought this sedan chair simply because it is beautiful.”

If you are interested in art and antique auctions, including peranakan items, Musa Jonatan can be contacted at (021) 5686050. Rusdi Tjahyadi can be reached at or


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