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Chinese Export Silver Candlesticks are Lustrous Beacons of Excellence

by Adrien von Ferscht (10/07/13).

Here we have a pair of circa 1890 candlesticks by the Canton- and ShangHai-based retail silversmith Sing Fat. Whereas Chinese Paktong candlesticks had been virtually always in the neo-classical style, Chinese Export Silver pairs were almost always decorated in the high Chinese style. While this pair has a vaguely Western form, and there’s a slight nod to neo-classicism with the acanthus-style detailing on the bases and capitals, the applied raised prunus motif is the more dominant.

中國出口銀器: 明亮的卓越之燈塔

Chinese Export Silver is without doubt the most mysterious silver category the world ever saw. Only now, more than 70 years after it faded into obscurity, are we beginning to understand some of the many enigmas; it’s the stuff of movies!

As a silver category, Chinese Export Silver produced copious quantities of individual generic items; tea sets, bowls, goblets, beakers, tankards, dishes, trophy cups—they all exist in the thousands except, rather bizarrely, candlesticks! When every other Western silver category was almost over-populated by pairs of candlesticks, in the Chinese Export Silver cupboard, the shelves are strangely almost bare.

What is all the more thought-provoking is that in the 17th and 18th centuries, China was producing superb candlesticks in the neo-classical styles, which were obviously destined for the West; candlesticks with a difference though—they looked and felt like silver, but they were made of Paktong.

Paktong (“pai-tung” or “Baitong”) is an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc that dates back to the 12th century. It resembles silver but, unlike silver, Paktong is slow to tarnish and wears well. Paktong was imported into England and most European countries from China and was used in the former during the 18th century and early 19th for making candlesticks, fenders, grates and other articles that generally would require a good deal of regular polishing; fenders and grates in particular.

Paktong was first used in China as a substitute for silver; at the time it was never considered an inferior material to silver and many high-quality and intricate items appear regularly today in auction houses, occasionally referred to as “white metal.” Such items often speak for themselves and were obviously as highly coveted and sought after as their silver counterparts at the time of manufacture. While only made by a few workshops, Chinese silversmiths created high quality items that equaled, if not rivaled, silver items. In the latter part of the 18th century, silversmiths even marked items with the pseudo-hallmarks they were to use on early Chinese Export Silver.

A rare pair of rococo-style Paktong candlesticks from Canton, circa 1760-1770.

The Canton pseudo-hallmark used on the candlesticks.

This pair of Paktong candlesticks (above) are by no means a cheap imitation of their silver cousins; Paktong was never intended as a poor relation. English makers, such as Matthew Boulton and Paul de Lamerie, saw the potential for making candlesticks and other goods from Paktong as the metal could be cast, took a high polish and was slow to tarnish. The renowned English Georgian architect Robert Adam designed Paktong fire grates for Syon House and a 1782 inventory of Osterley Park House records the fire grate, fender and fire irons as being of Paktong.

Paktong was used quite widely by master French silversmith Fraget, purveyor of silver to the Court of the Tsar, who went on to open retail outlets in St Petersburg, Warsaw, Odessa, Lvov, Tsibilis, Kiev and Vilnius where he became known as Fraget of Warsaw. Fraget had among his specialities the manufacture of high quality Sabbath candlesticks for the more affluent Jewish clientele and many of these candlesticks were of Paktong, since it was forbidden for Jews in the Pale of Settlement to own silver.

The pair of candlesticks on the left is by the Hong Kong-based retail silversmith Gan Sheng (a.k.a C.Y.S). These were made on the cusp of the 19th and 20th centuries and are an early work from Gan Sheng. Totally Chinese in decoration, they still retain hints of Western influences in the base, but the faux bamboo treatment of the stems is both ingenious and effective and the bobeches and bases have a distinct oriental feel. The pair on the right is well and truly in the high Chinese style with a superbly reticulated dragon in clouds motif. The candlesticks are by the Peking retail silversmith Sheng Yuan who also operated in ShangHai an emporium known as “The Peking Silver Temple.”

This advertisement appeared in a 1930s guidebook for ShangHai. “Sheng Yuen Lou” literally means Sheng Yuan’s Shop and the strange-looking word “Peiping” is actually an accepted alternative transliteration for Peking at the time.

This single candlestick is by Wo Shing, circa 1860, is completely in the high Chinese style. This dragon rampant, an unusual pose in itself, is nevertheless appropriately holding the bobeche holder in its mouth in order for it to breathe fire when the candle is lit.

This rather resplendent pair of candlesticks is by Sun Shing, one of the earlier Canton silversmiths. They depict a pair of peacocks, distinguishable from their mythical cousins the phoenix by their tails and their short legs. They are rather grand and unusually overwhelmingly Chinese in the theme and detailing of the decoration, even down to the magnolia petal bobeches.

The stems have even been textured to resemble the furriness of a true lotus stem. The lotus represents Bhuddism or qualities such as purity and harmony associated with Buddhism. But when a flower and a bud combination is depicted, as we have here, it is a symbol of the union of marriage and fertility.

While dragons are the highest-ranking animal in the Chinese animal hierarchy and is one of the four most revered animals throughout Chinese history, this candlestick (above left) is rather unusual. But one of the most unusual Chinese Export Silver candlesticks I’ve ever seen (above right), was created by the Hong Kong silversmith Cum Wo. It takes the form of three aquatic lotus stems, two bearing flowers and one a bud, all emerging from a stylized lotus leaf base. The stems have even been textured to resemble the furriness of a true lotus stem. The lotus represents Buddhismor qualities such as purity and harmony associated with Buddhism. But when a flower and a bud combination is depicted, as we have here, it is a symbol of the union of marriage and fertility. Because a lotus flower rises undefiled from impure muddy waters, it embodies purity and perfection and serves as a model to Buddhists to strive to live a life of integrity and purity while living in a mundane world. The candlestick was made circa 1890.

In the late 19th century, Paktong was adopted and slightly modified by middle European countries to become Alpacca, commonly known as “German silver,” and it became a mass production metal that eventually even Württembergische Metallwarenfabrik (WMF) adopted.

The bamboo theme is taken up again in this pair of candlesticks by the Canton and ShangHai based retail silversmith Sing Fat, circa 1910. The column of each candlestick is finely engraved with a bamboo foliate motif against a finely planished ground, the design of each are precise mirror images of each other—the sign of a true pair. The bases are highly polished and flared in order to maximize reflection of lit candles.

By the late 18th century, Chinese Export Silver had become the engine to supply the West with high quality silverwares. Paktong became rare as a result and merchants and ships’ captains could not get enough Chinese Export Silver on to their laden ships. High-quality items began to flow; the only thing that was a rarity was candlesticks! They were made, but today, a pair of Chinese Export Silver candlesticks is a specialty, rather than the norm.

But last of all, we have what must be the most unusual candlesticks of the Chinese Export Silver period, albeit they are not silver!

This pair of candelabrum (below, left) were made by Hsiang Yun Company of Hankow circa 1900. Nothing unusual in that, you might say. But this pair are actually silver-plated, Hsiang Yun being a factory that only made silver-plated items. Silver-plating was virtually unknown in China, given the sheer availability of silver and the relative cheapness of manufacturing. Hankow, standing north of the Yangtze and Han rivers, was a city with five foreign concession areas—Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Japan. Hankow had a riverfront Bund, similar to ShangHai.

This silver-plated pair of candelabrum were made by Hsiang Yun Company of Hankow, circa 1900.

The sticks on the left were probably made as Sabbath candlesticks, since they closely resemble the traditional brass Russian and Polish styles of the period, as we can see above.

The style of these candelabrum indicate they were probably made for either the French or Russian market. Each of these large candelabra has a fluted base and a conform stem and candle holders. The arms have stylized crane bird masks at their mounts to the stems. Although the crane bird was revered in China because it was believed they lived for centuries, they also have significance in French culture—in fact the English word “pedigree” is derived from the late Middle French phrase “pie de grue” (foot of the crane)—a fanciful way of describing the appearance of the hereditary lines of a genealogical chart.

None of this explains the dearth of Chinese Export Silver candlesticks relative to the quantities other silver objects were manufactured in. It will probably remain yet another Chinese enigma for many years to come or perhaps it is simply because of the words of Confucius:

“It is better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness.”


Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; Thanks to: Thomas Coulborn & Sons, UK; S&J Stodel. London; Wax Antiques, London; Berry & Co, San Jose, CA; Michael Backman Ltd, London

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the www.chinese-export-silver.com archive, managed by Christopher Hunter at www.eleven38photography.co.uk.


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. His “Catalogue of Chinese Export Makers’ Marks [1785-1940],” is the largest collector’s guide for Chinese Export Silver available, with information on 155 makers and 133 pages of in-depth history. It is updated every six to eight months and is only available as a download file. The single purchase price acquires the Catalogue plus all subsequent editions free of charge. Adrien also encourages people to share images and ask questions at avf@chinese-export-silver.com“> avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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