Exquisite Exports – Exploring the allure of Chinese silver made for Western markets

By Melody Amsel-Arieli

Chinese export silver, also known as Chinese trade silver, was produced specifically for foreign markets from 1785, when trade opened with the West, through 1940. In China, raw silver was relatively inexpensive and silver craftsmanship was well-developed. So enterprising tea, spice and silk traders, travelers, sea-captains, as well as Westerners living there, commissioned pieces for their own use or for sale overseas. Trade initially developed in Canton, located on the South China Sea. After the 1842 Treaty of Nanking, it spread to Shanghai and Hong Kong, as well.

According to Adrien von Ferscht, leading expert in Chinese export silver, consultant to museums and collections worldwide, and author of “Catalogue of Chinese Export Silver Makers’ Marks,” “Probably unlike any other nation in history, silver was highly prized by the succession of Chinese dynasties. Silver was the bedrock of almost 2,000 years of trade

This Chinese export silver vase by an unknown maker, circa 1880, measures 5 inches high and weighs 9.39 troy ounces. With repoussé floral decoration and everted rim on a footed base, it earned $1,375 at Heritage Auction Galleries, Sept. 25, 2012. (Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries)

with the outside world. Its craftsmanship was as deeply embedded as silver itself in the psyche of the Chinese.”

During the early Chinese Export Silver Period, silversmiths faithfully copied functional British or American items like flatware, tankards, and tea sets. Since they did not understand the significance of British hallmarks, they often unwittingly copied them as well, but with crude symbols or altered lettering.

“There were, and still are, extremely strict rules on hallmarking in the U.K.,” explains Stephen Stodel, partner in the London-based S. & J. Stodel, specialist dealers in Chinese export silver. “So many of these copied items were destroyed as fakes. Following research done in the U.S. in the 1970s, however, pieces with copy marks – now universally described as ‘pseudo-hallmarks’ – were recognized as important, rare examples of early 19th century Chinese silver. Currently, we have a pair of pseudo-hallmarked Chinese export silver sauceboats on original trays priced at around $28,000.

From the 1840s, silversmiths not only replicated classical Western bowls, dishes, wine goblets and covered cups, but they also began to replace their traditional, restrained designs, with chased or repoussé auspicious Chinese motifs like bamboo, lotus and peonies, chrysanthemum and plum blossoms and dragons, symbol of Imperial power and strength.

Many individual artists — or masters of small silver workshops — added hallmarks of their own. These featured either subtle combinations of Latin initials and Chinese characters or graphic symbols originally reserved for use by the Imperial Court, called “chopmarks.”

Pieces bearing better-known chopmarks, designating We We WC, Cutshing or Hung

Measuring 18 1/4 inches high by 24 3/4 inches long (including stand), this monumental Chinese silver and silver gilt dragon boat on stand by an unknown maker earned $27,500 at auction. (Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries)

Chong, for example, are highly collectible. So are those bearing the “chop” of Wang Hing, who, for more than 20 years, created exclusive works for New York’s Tiffany & Co.

Yet, reveals Adrien von Ferscht, to this day, the true identities of these and many other master craftsmen remain unknown. As is tradition in Chinese society, many “chops” were likely trade names adopted to evoke good luck.

Toward the 20th century, Chinese export silver craftsmen created Western-style utilitarian items, like dressing table sets, buckles, belts, boxes, cocktail shakers, wine decanters, tea ware, tazzas, napkin rings, butter dishes and beakers, in highly ornate, Chinese-style relief. Many of these later pieces feature ever-popular dragon motifs in all forms, including spouts and handles.

Although size, crispness of details, and types of decoration have traditionally determined the price of Chinese export silver, all pieces originally commanded astonishingly low prices. Recent Western austerity, however, which has seen incredible amounts of high quality Georgian and Victorian silver sold and melted for financial gain, has raised the worth of silver in general. Moreover, within the last few years, Mainland China’s emerging middle class and nouveau riche, indulging their passion for big, showy pieces that feature Chinese motifs, have driven prices up significantly. In addition, China now boasts a huge increase in museums that need to be stocked.

“Silver was the bedrock of almost 2,000 years of trade with the outside world. Its craftsmanship was as deeply embedded as silver itself in
the psyche of the Chinese.”

~ Adrien von Ferscht

On the other hand, Chinese collectors are not yet buying earlier Chinese export silver copies of Western pieces, ones that, frankly, don’t look Chinese. So the prices of these have remained quite low.

Since much Chinese export silver was made for the cheaper end of the tourist trade in China and Hong Kong, small, common pieces, like mugs and mustard pots, can still be found for under $1,000. “Yet,” asks Michael Backman, director of one of London’s most prominent Asian and colonial antiques commercial galleries, “are such pieces worth acquiring? The passing of time does not make an insignificant piece any more significant.

“Still,” he allows, “Chinese export silver has proved a good investment for those who acquired it over three years ago. Since then, prices have shot up in an extraordinary fashion. Yet it remains to be seen whether pieces acquired today will be a good investment tomorrow. But the risk is less if you stick with large, quality pieces, like tea sets or coffee services. Each may command as much as $20,000 to $30,000.”

This 20th century Chinese export silver flask from an unknown maker measures 5 3/8 inches high and weighs 6.11 troy ounces. With damage to hinge and surface scratches commensurate with age, the flask earned $625 at auction in 2012. (Photo courtesy Heritage Auction Galleries)

Experts recommend that interested parties, before purchasing their first piece of Chinese export silver, study relevant books, view museum exhibitions and personally handle as many pieces as possible.

Daniel Bexfield, antique silver specialist, member of   Britain’s Association of Art and Antique Dealers, and director of The British Antiques Dealers Association, has found that “collectors sometimes purchase according to names of silversmiths alone, not taking into account the quality or condition of their work.” Nor do they consider if pieces have been excessively over-polished through the years (which wears away their detail) or have been silver-dipped to clean them. “As far as I am concerned,” he explains, “these practices strip pieces of all their color, character and desirability.”

Backman, who has also authored six books on Asia’s economies and cultures, warns that vintage pieces made by Chinese silversmiths in Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia are often marketed as authentic Chinese export silver. So are many high quality, similar pieces that have been recently produced by silversmiths in Vietnam.

“Question your dealer,” he advises. “Has he travelled through Asia? Is he aware of what is being currently produced in Vietnam and what was produced elsewhere? In today’s world of information, dealers should be scholars as well as traders.”

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