A Hung Chong tea set and tray (not shown), circa 1900, is currently offered for sale in a dealer’s showroom in Shanghai for a staggering $27,000. In a U.K. or U.S. auction house would expect to achieve a hammer price of $9,000 (with tray).
Historically, silver has always had a greater value within China than anywhere else in the world. Today, as with most things Chinese, we find history repeating itself.
In the 16th century, silver had a value in China double to that of Europe, the very same phenomenon I am seeing today. While items of Chinese Export Silver are achieving record values in American and European auction houses, in many cases the self-same items appear in dealers’ showrooms in Shanghai and Hong Kong at double the price. More importantly, they are selling! To highlight this, I’ve peppered this article with examples of high-quality Chinese Export Silver that are being offered for sale in China at values generally double that of the West—most of the items were originally acquired in the U.K. or U.S.
China is virtually the only nation in the world to have based its entire economy on silver. Unlike any other nation in history, silver was highly prized by the succession of Chinese dynasties and was the bedrock of almost 1,200 years of trade with the outside world; by the time the Ming dynasty established itself, the Chinese focus on silver as the bedrock foundation of the nation had reached never-before seen heights. China was, by far, the dominant buyer of silver worldwide. Spanish America, Mexico and Peru—to be precise—literally erupted into silver mining, producing massive quantities. Between the years 1500-1800, more than 80 percent of the entire world’s silver came from this source, estimated at around 150,000 tons.
A large Chinese Export Silver tray by Canton maker Gem Wo, circa 1860, is offered for sale in a reputable Shanghai dealer for $20,000.
Towards the late 16th century and into the early 17th century, the exchange rate for gold against silver in Spain was between 1:12 and 1:14. In China the rate was between 1:5 and 1:7. This clearly demonstrates that silver had an intrinsic value double that of Europe within China! Such a divergent value of a single commodity creates exceptional prospects for what is known as “profitable arbitrage trade”; the simultaneous purchase and sale of an asset in order to profit from a difference in the price or value—trade that profits by exploitation of price or value differences of identical or similar financial instruments on different markets or in different forms. In some ways, China was utilizing a financial strategy that is not a million miles from what we recognize as a “hedge fund” strategy today!
Mexico tried in vain to limit the amount of silver being shipped to China trying to keep it in the region of 150 tons annually. It more or less achieved this, however, it is generally estimated that in excess of 300 tons annually was managed to be smuggled out of Mexico and onwards to China. Manila was shipping 50 tons annually.
To put this into some perspective, 50 tons of silver is approximately the average annual exports to Asia by Portugal, the Dutch and the English East India Companies combined in the 17th century.
A stunning and quite rare two-handled small bowl by Tientsin maker Yong Xing Cheng weighing 180 gm, is offered for sale in Shanghai at $2,700.
The amount of silver pouring into the Ming treasury was in the region of $190 billion in today’s values. The Ming dynasty was responsible for more than 30 percent of the entire world’s GDP. Silver, skilled artisans and an almost fortress-like protectionism remained a constant in China right up until the Communist Revolution.
Fast-forwarding to the present day, we are seeing history repeating itself in China, where silver is concerned. The buoyancy of Chinese Export Silver as an antique silver category is due to an equation made up of the growing awareness of the silver combined with the growing affluent middle class in China; there currently are a staggering 150 million middle class and affluent people in China today. The liquid spending power of the Chinese middle class, in just two years’ time, will be in the region of a trillion dollars.
Today, there are 7,000 dollar billionaires and 125,000 multi-millionaires in Shanghai alone. In the 2010 census, the population of Shanghai was 23 million. In Beijing there are 9,000 billionaires. In the whole of the U.K. there are 73 billionaires. There are fewer than 300 billionaires in the whole of the European Union. In just one generation, China will have approximately 1.4 billion middle class, compared to an estimated 360 million in the U.S. and 414 million in the whole of Europe.
A large Wang Hing rose bowl, circa 1895 and weight 560 gm, is offered for sale in Shanghai at $5,000.
None of this staggering information should lessen the perception of Chinese Export Silver as a highly significant silver category. I should say here that I am constantly criticized by so-called “experts” and “academics” of portraying Chinese Export Silver with a “too commercial slant.” Many of these comments come from museum-centric forums that I contribute to. Talking about high values, it seems, “cheapens” the inherent artistic values. I have to say I find this bizarre; nobody flinches when a Rothko hits a record hammer price in auction. When applied to fine art, price, it seems, becomes the marker of the greatness of an artwork, yet it is not allowed to be spoken of when discussing the merits of an important silver object. Is this some convoluted inverted snobbery, I ask myself?
A screenshot from a China government-backed TV advertisement encouraging silver bullion bar investment. Funny, considering that China’s communist government once forbid the private ownership of precious metals.
All the items illustrated in this article are high quality and important items. The phenomenon on values within China cannot and should not be allowed to detract from quality of workmanship in exactly the same way as the $155 million paid for Picasso’s “La Reve” and $100 million for Andy Warhol’s “Eight Elvises” hasn’t detracted from the paintings’ importance.
The Chinese preoccupation with silver continues and, in many ways, acts as the driver for the resurgent interest in Chinese Export Silver even though, ironically, the silver was, in the main, originally made for the West and not the Chinese home market at the time. And more recently, the Chinese government, which once forbade ownership of precious metals, has now lifted the ban and China has introduced silver bullion bars, which the middle class are urged to invest in backed up by a state run China Central Television ad campaign.
So silver, yet again, is being seen as favored investment. While this has nothing to do with antique silver, per se, it does highlight the fact that a 1,200-year love affair with silver can fuel the renaissance of appreciation and awareness of Chinese Export Silver. Without that obsession, most of us would still be oblivious to this unique silver category. It also highlights another unique fact associated with Chinese Export Silver: No other important silver category was created as a direct result of political history and protectionism.
Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research and also works with museums and universities around the world. His ever-expanding website, Chinese Export Silver, is the largest online information resource on the subject. Adrien recently released “Catalogue of Chinese Export Makers’ Marks,” the largest reference work for makers’ marks ever published. You can e-mail Adrien at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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