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Chinese Export Silver: The Silver Category That Eluded Everyone

by Adrien von Ferscht (05/15/13).

This Art Nouveau silver tyg was my initiation into the world of the Chinese silversmiths. My $40 investment sold in auction last year for £3,000 ($4,650).

It’s not uncommon that I get torn off a strip by antique silver experts for the fact I’m forever extolling the virtues of Chinese Export Silver, but the more I research this silver, the more proof I unearth that this is not only a highly significant silver category, but it is also a vast one.

It is true, not all Chinese Export Silver is amazing. But then not all Georgian English and American silver is amazing, either. But just as Georgian silver has a high level of master silversmithing, so does Chinese Export Silver, and often the latter displays techniques and a constancy of masterful artistry that can outshine their European and American contemporaries.

Until quite recently,Crosby Forbes and Kernan. These works were all based mainly on specific collections and didn’t really acknowledge the existence of a whole world of Chinese Export Silver being out there, not to mention the number of silversmiths that were actively producing and the number of manufacturing centers. Crosby Forbes and Kernan only really acknowledged the existence of Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong; Jiujang, Peking and Tientsin were equally important, and the work of the Shanghai makers, known collectively as “The Nine Factories,” were not acknowledged at all.

To put into context how information has moved on since Crosby Forbes, at the original time of writing his 1960s work, he assessed there were some 200 pieces only inexistence. He later revised the figure to be 2,000. The reality is probably in the tens of thousands, if not more.

It must be some 17 years ago now that I first acquired a piece of Chinese Export Silver. Bizarrely, I discovered it in an antique shop in Israel and the only reason I did so was because the store owner wanted to get rid of it! I remember distinctly that I bought it reluctantly, believing that something made in Shanghai was inferior; it was the eventual $40 price tag that clinched the deal. A Art Nouveau silver tyg was my initiation into the world of the Chinese silversmiths and the $40 investment was actually sold in auction last year for £3,000 [$4,650].

This tea set was discovered in an attic in London almost completely black and totally unloved and forgotten. Made by Kan Mao Hsing of Jiujang (circa 1895), it achieved £4,600 ($7,150) in auction last year.

It’s matching tea caddy to the Kan Mao Hsing set, found in the same attic, achieved £1,800 in the same auction.

Since half the remaining Chinese Export Silver is probably in the United States, it never ceases to amaze me how many American appraisers seem to be oblivious to its very existence, let alone its relevance as a significant silver category and its relatively high values. There are probably more appraisers in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world—just as there’s more Chinese Export Silver in the U.S. than anywhere else in the world! Which leaves us in a somewhat ludicrous situation, since if awareness of Chinese Export Silver was at a level the category should be due, I am positive we would begin to see some really astounding silver come to light. 

So many people own it and are oblivious to what it is; I encounter this situation all the time. Given that Chinese Export Silver is probably the only antique silver category that escapes the scrap furnaces because of its particular buoyancy in the marketplace—due to current affluent Chinese interest—it is all the more ludicrous that so much of this silver has been confined to attics and store closets to lie in obscurity. I was actually told recently by one leading U.S. auction house it didn’t consider that there was a “significant market” for Chinese Export Silver! I am continually astounded at this lack of awareness that in turn fuels this dismissal of an important silver category. 

A tea set was discovered in an attic in London almost completely black and totally unloved and forgotten. Made by Kan Mao Hsing of Jiujang (circa 1895), it achieved £4,600 ($7,150) in auction last year. It’s a particularly fine example of the high Chinese style and was executed, like much of Chinese Export Silver, in a far heavier gauge silver than an 1890s European or American tea set would have been made. A matching tea caddy, found in the same attic, achieved £1,800 in the same auction. Both lots were only brought to auction because my constant “blathering” about Chinese Export Silver made the owner suddenly remember there might actually be buried treasures in her attic. Similar situations must be duplicated in thousands of attics around the U.S. and the U.K.

This six-piece baluster form tea and coffee set was made by Hung Chong & Co. of Canton and Shanghai, circa 1870, is made to imitate Georgian silver. It was discovered in a home in Perthshire, Scotland, and was acquired for £1,000 ($1,550) just two years ago.

This collection of four late 19th century Chinese Export Silver pepperettes by Wang Hing, Zee Wo and Sing Fat were sold at auction recently for £2,200 ($3,418).

Early Chinese Export Silver was often faithful copies of fine Georgian silver. A six-piece baluster form tea and coffee set was made by Hung Chong & Co. of Canton and Shanghai, circa 1870. The set weighed in excess of 4,500gm (144.70 troy ounces). It was discovered in a home in Perthshire, Scotland, and was acquired for £1,000 [$1,550] just two years ago. It was sold at auction last year for a staggering £17,500 ($27,200). It is, to all intents and purposes, pure Georgian in style, apart from a slight nod to its Chinese maker in the lotus blossom-shaped rim to each piece and the coromandel handles instead of ebonised.

I previously gave reference to the fact that Chinese Export Silver manages to avoid the scrap furnaces due to its value buoyancy. A collection of four late 19th century Chinese Export Silver pepperettes by Wang Hing, Zee Wo and Sing Fat, with a total combined weight of just 140 grams (4.5 troy ounces) were sold at auction recently for £2,200 ($3,418). In weight terms, that is equivalent to almost £499 an ounce ($775)!

This fully articulated Chinese Export Silver rickshaw three-piece condiment set by Wang Hing, also found in pieces and tarnished, achieved £1,260 ($1,955) in auction quite recently.

A rather delicious, fully articulated Chinese Export Silver rickshaw three-piece condiment set by Wang Hing was also found in pieces and so tarnished one could easily have mistaken it for any base metal. It achieved £1,260 ($1,955) in auction quite recently, equivalent to $260 an ounce. The successful bidder was from mainland China.

In general, the current interest in Chinese Export Silver comes from two distinct categories of buyer—the affluent Chinese and the serious silver or Asian arts collector. This, in turn, fuels the buoyancy in values. Chinese buyers generally are seeking items that are overtly decorated with Chinese motifs, while collectors are keen on the earlier pre Georgian items that often carry what have become known as “pseudo-hallmarks”—a misnomer, because there was never any assay control in China or any compulsory registration of makers’ marks.

This mark is an example of “questionable” provenance—it’s attempting to be a Tientsin maker, but I’m highly suspicious of it.

Until quite recently I had never encountered any fake Chinese Export Silver, but with the huge growth in interest from mainland China, I have begun to notice the occasional “dubious” items appearing that attempt to clone known makers’ marks. This seems to be emanating from Malaysia and bowls seem to be the favorite item to pass off as being “the real thing.” Because these makers are probably Straits Chinese silversmiths, these items tend to have a Straits Chinese Silver feel to the motifs employed. The gauge of silver is often thinner than would be expected and the repoussé work is not of the quality that true Chinese Export Silver makers employed. The mark at right is an example of “questionable” provenance—it’s attempting to be a Tientsin maker, but I’m highly suspicious of it.

Chinese Export Silver, therefore, is not for the faint-hearted; one needs to understand this silver as a category as a whole. But then the same goes for any major antique silver category. What makes Chinese Export Silver particularly special is that no other silver category comes with such a rich, diverse and complex history attached to it. It’s a history that few are aware of, and this applies to the people of China as well. I am currently actively involved with several organizations and institutes in South East Asia and am constantly surprising people of Chinese heritage of history they simply had never heard about!


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 avf@chinese-export-silver.com.

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