Chinese export silver – a guide for new collectors

Chinese export silver – a guide for new collectors

As an important collection of Chinese export silver comes to auction, Senior Specialist Jill Waddell explains why it’s enjoying a renaissance. Illustrated with pieces offered at Christie’s

What is Chinese export silver?

Chinese export silver was produced in China from the mid-18th to mid-20th century for a largely Western audience. It was made in the European style from melted Spanish silver (historically, the only currency Chinese merchants would accept for the trading of goods, such as tea, silks and spices, out of China), and falls largely into three periods: early-, late- and post-China Trade.

How did the market develop in the West?

In the mid-18th century, European trade with China was restricted to the port of Canton (now known as Guangzhou), which facilitated the collection of taxes on exported goods under the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned between 1735 and 1796. Although the West had been trading in Chinese silks, spices and teas for almost 150 years by this point, the market for Chinese export silver did not flourish until the 1750s, when the international trading value of silver fell dramatically.

During this pivotal moment of trade between China and the West, traditional Chinese motifs were combined with Western-inspired forms to create new, highly desirable works of art. ‘With its mix of Western forms and Eastern iconography, Chinese export silver reflects a moment of unique cultural exchange,’ says Christie’s specialist Jill Waddell.

What is the current market for Chinese export silver?

According to Waddell, the market is predominantly guided by the tastes of American, Asian and European buyers, and is primarily concerned with intricately decorated pieces featuring dragons or delicate filigree work produced during the 19th century.

Many pieces of Chinese export silver were presented as gifts or prizes, and were often engraved with the recipients’ names, dates, and other information. ‘These engraved inscriptions allow collectors to draw tangible links between the past and the present and to forge an emotional connection with the work of art,’ observes Waddell.

Christie’s forthcoming online sale of Chinese export silver (15-22 August) offers notable examples of presentation silver, including a presentation cup and cover (above), which is recorded to have been gifted by Chinese merchants at Kobe. It is engraved with the words: ‘As a mark of their esteem and gratitude for the invariable kindness and consideration they have received from him.’

Which are the key makers to know?

The best examples of Chinese export silver reflect the silversmiths’ skill and mastery of techniques including casting, chasing and engraving. Virtuosic execution of complex decorative motifs on the finest objects reflects the high quality of work produced for foreign markets.

Nearly all pieces of Chinese export silver are stamped with the marks of the workshop, or with pseudo hallmarks in imitation of English hallmarks. Ongoing scholarship into these hallmarks allows collectors to more confidently identify and group objects by style, region and producer, says Waddell.

Sun Shing – Canton, 1790-1885

During the early China Trade period (1785-1840), many Canton-based companies made silver that imitated Western silver in style and decoration. Sun Shing (1790-1885) and Wong Shing (1820-1860) are among the best known firms from this period.

Broadly speaking, Chinese export silver from this period was of uniformly high quality and heavy weight, and was marked with initials and pseudo hallmarks in imitation of English hallmarks. Sun Shing is best known for its superb table silver. Early work is often marked with the initials ‘SS’ and pseudo hallmarks, while mid-19th-century work is accompanied by an ideogram.

WE/WE/WC – Canton, circa 1820-1880

This firm, also working in the early China trade period, is also known for its superior table silver. The WE/WE/WC mark is an imitation of the mark used by English silver firm William Eley, William Fearn and William Chawner, and is a misread of its mark WE/WF/WC.

Hoaching – Canton, circa 1825-1870

During the mid China Trade period (1840-1880), silversmiths began adding Chinese decorative motifs such as bamboo, dragons or warriors onto typically Western forms.

Hoaching, which was also well known for carved ivory pieces, produced high-quality silver that is usually marked with a distinctive letter, referred to as the ‘Lombardic H’.

Wang Hing & Co. – Canton 

Wang Hing originated as a jade dealer in Canton and evolved to become the best known and most prolific maker of export silver during the late China Trade period. Towards the end of the 19th century Wang Hing forged connections with Western silver firms and exhibited silver at international exhibitions. The firm later expanded to Shanghai, and opened a flagship store in Hong Kong in 1920.

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What are the rare forms and decorative elements to know?

While popular and marketable objects such as tea services, dressing table sets and cigarette cases survive in greater numbers, large-scale objects and rare forms such as candlesticks, flasks and even celery vases are of particular interest to contemporary collectors. Silver pagodas and rosewater sprinklers made for the Ottoman market are also highly desirable.

The four primary decorative elements that appear throughout Chinese art are the chrysanthemum, prunus, orchid and bamboo. They are meant to represent the four seasons, and were also known as the Four Noble Ones, or The Four Gentlemen.

Cranes and dragons are extremely popular motifs, too. For many thousands of years dragons have symbolised wisdom, harmony and prosperity in China, says Waddell. ‘In ancient Chinese culture, they represent imperial power.’

What should new collectors be aware of?

While it is not unusual for silver objects of considerable age and daily use to show signs of general wear (such as light scratching or denting), collectors should look out for more serious issues including solder repairs to handles, hinges, or other areas of stress, and signs that an object has suffered significant damage from mishandling.

Many pieces of Chinese export silver have erasures, or areas where earlier monograms or inscriptions have been removed, so collectors should inspect these areas closely to ensure that this has not resulted in thinness.