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A 19th-Century Chinese Hat Stand Spent 50 Years in Disguise as a Welsh Lamp

Chinese-porcelain expert Ivy Chan tells the story of a fancy incognito furnishing.

For five decades, a colorful lamp in a Welsh country house was not what it seemed. Though it appeared to be an ornately decorated light, the object was really a hat stand from China’s Daoguang period, dating back nearly 200 years.

The hat rack-turned-lamp-turned-back-to-hat-stand was discovered in an estate sale in the 1950s. Its original function was to display opulent head wear belonging to members of China’s imperial court.

“In the Daoguang period the type of hat that you wore was very important because it signified rank and status,” said Ivy Chan, Chinese ceramics and works of art specialist at Christie’s auction house. Hats that were that important wouldn’t just be lying around, they’d need to be displayed in a way that was as elaborate as they were. The extravagance of this particular hat stand means that it was probably for someone very important—“probably for the Daoguang emperor himself,” says Chan.

The piece features panels that allow fragrance to be inserted into the rack so that when the hat was placed on top, it would be beautifully scented for its wearer. The rack’s painted designs—dragons and bats—are symbolic as well, with the dragons representing divine power, and the bats representing blessings (the words for bat and blessing sounding very similar in Mandarin, Chan explains).

Christie’s sold this rare piece in London in 2016 for £581,000 (around $780,000), to a buyer who, more than likely, won’t be turning it back into a lamp.

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