Chinese Export Silver Items Strike Gold at Heritage Auctions Sale

This splendid, lidded and standing cup, carries a mark of a retail silversmith we only know by the initials MLW. Yet this particular cup also bares the “chopmark” of the actual silver workshop that created it, in this case identifiable as Sheng Chang who, importantly, is a “known” maker, especially by Chinese aficionados. It achieved an astounding hammer value of $22,500 at the Heritage Auctions sale.

At the back end of August this year, the Dallas-based auction house Heritage Auctions had consulted with me regarding some items of Chinese Export Silver due in a mixed silver sale scheduled for Nov. 5. Officials from Heritage did it of their own accord, as opposed to my usual hectoring of auction houses to improve half-hearted attempts to catalogue Chinese Export Silver.

For the two years I have been carrying out my academic research into Chinese Export Silver, I’ve felt, at times, to be a crusader in a hostile world. Just over six months ago, WorthPoint realized the importance of the very significant silver category; significant not only in size, but also in its style and rich history. In all these respects, Chinese Export Silver is unique. It was also unique that the largest online information resource for the antique world had taken a conscious decision to re-educate the world by carrying my weekly articles.

The cup features an elaborate dragon head finial atop a stepped domed lid with chased and repoussé foliate and fruit decoration surrounding the swirling high relief tail of the dragon. The main body of the cup carries a high relief, highly detailed allegorical scene of figures within a palace scene, a centered shield-shaped cartouche and flanked by a pair of naturalistic grapevine handles.

The next major breakthrough was when the online auction platform Auctionata came to a similar conclusion by asking me if it were feasible to create an exclusively Chinese Export Silver sale in 2014. My answer to Auctionata—as with any auction-based platform, whether it be virtual or physical—is a resounding yes, but with the proviso that the expertise is firmly in place and a true understanding of the silver, the “market” and the buyers is present. As a result, Auctionata joins WorthPoint in being the second digital presence to recognize the significance of Chinese Export Silver as a major world silver category.

I was more than pleased when Heritage Auctions approached me to consult with them on a small collection of Chinese Export Silver that had been consigned. The sale and the results speak volumes; hammer values were achieved in every instance far above comparable silver from other categories.

Among the auction items was a rather splendid lidded standing cup carrying a mark of a retail silversmith we only know by the initials MLW—my research has never discovered any documentation that sheds light on the full identity of this retailer. Yet this particular cup also bore the “chopmark” of the actual silver workshop that created it, in this case identifiable as Sheng Chang who, importantly, is a “known” maker, especially by Chinese aficionados.

It was a rather deliciously ebullient confection in the high Chinese style. Having an elaborate dragon head finial atop a stepped domed lid with chased and repoussé foliate and fruit decoration surrounding the swirling high relief tail of the dragon. The main body of the cup carries a high relief, highly detailed allegorical scene of figures within a palace scene, a centered shield-shaped cartouche and flanked by a pair of naturalistic grapevine handles. The cup issues from an cornucopia carried by a female figure accompanied by a child and a faun who stand grouped on the circular base, itself decorated with bands of alternating high relief and engraved foliate and floral motifs. The cup, as can be expected, has a parcel gilded interior.

As a standing cup, it is not particularly large, standing at 35 centimters and weighing some 1,180 grams. The cup, however, achieved an astounding hammer value of $22,500 at the sale.

Chinese Export Silver makers were highly adept at creating trophy cups, doing so in their inimitable style; a sort of cross-dressed version of that Chinese and Victorian to attempt over-the-topness without going totally overboard.

Bidding was obviously brisk. Having my fingers almost constantly on the pulse of the world that is Chinese Export Silver, I had been aware for several weeks of ongoing dialogues about this item on Chinese-language online forums for Chinese Export Silver. Part of that discussion was focused on the fact this came from a bench in the Sheng Chang silver workshop. The fact the cup happened also to be overtly in the high-Chinese style certainly helped it hammer down for a such a highly satisfying result; Chinese buyers generally prefer the later high-Chinese style rather than the pure Georgian style of earlier items.

Other CES Highlights

This three-piece tea set by the Hong Kong maker Guang Ji, circa 1900, achieved $8,250

Although the standing cup was by far the star of the show, other items of Chinese Export Silver all performed well. A three-piece tea set by the Hong Kong maker Guang Ji, circa 1900, achieved $8,250, while a Henri Soufflot French coffee service of the same date, a comparable piece in terms of silver work and silver weight, achieved a hammer of a little less than $1,000 in the same sale. A Chinese Export Silver baluster coffee pot by the Shanghai retail silversmith Tuck Chang, circa 1900, was sold for $5312, again having a classical Chinese allegorical scene as the decorative motif, set off by the faux bamboo loop handle and bamboo culme finial. For an end of the 19th century pot weighing under 500gm to achieve this figure is no mean feat, but indicative of how buoyant this silver category is against its contemporaries.

The lidded conserve pot, also by Tuck Chang and obviously from the same original household as the coffee pot, given the identical monogramming, achieved $1,625. At just over 5 inches tall, again a significant value to achieve. We are only just beginning to come to grips with the size this silver category probably was. In the 1960s, it had been identified that fewer than 40 “makers” were known of and an inconsequential amount of silver overall existed. We now know this was vastly under-estimated and we now are fully aware that more than half of the silver ever exported from China went to countries other than the United States.

Chinese Export Silver baluster coffee pot by the Shanghai retail silversmith Tuck Chang, circa 1900, was sold for $5312, again having a classical Chinese allegorical scene as the decorative motif, set off by the faux bamboo loop handle and bamboo culme finial.

The lidded conserve pot, also by Tuck Chang and obviously from the same original household as the coffee pot, given the identical monogramming, achieved $1,625.

My own research, after almost two years, has now fully identified just over 200 “makers.” I use inverted commas knowingly because I have emphasized that many of the marks we find on Chinese Export Silver, in particular those that appear in English, are marks of retail silversmiths and not the actual silver workshop. The hierarchy of the system in China, if we can call it a system, was very different to anything in the West. There was also no assay system in China, so even referring to marks as “hallmarks” is not particularly appropriate.

I should also quickly add that although 200 makers are now identified, the reality is that probably several thousand silver workshops existed across China in the 150 years or so of Chinese Export Silver. This, too, should indicate the vastness of the size this silver category has, also implying there’s a vast amount of this silver “out there” waiting to be identified.

Interestingly, an S. Kirk & Son silver repoussé ginger jar sold at the same sale for $1,375. It was decorated in the Chinese style. I can say with my hand firmly on my heart that had this been a tea caddy by Luen Wo, for instance, and in the same style, it would have achieved a figure comparable to the compote. Such is the power of Chinese Export Silver, but it is not a power that can be taken for granted; it will only happen if there is a clear demonstration on the part of the auction house and the seller that they understand what it is they are offering for sale.

While I am obviously pleased that my writing for WorthPoint highlights a general deficiency in most Western auction houses to recognize that Chinese Export Silver is not only a significant world silver category, but one that deserves optimum demonstration that the auction house offering items for sale amply shows it has sufficient knowledge to be doing so. Apart from the Ralph Chait Galleries in New York—which historically have always had a specialized connection with Chinese Export Silver—Heritage Auctions is the first major American auction house to get to the nub of the matter by understanding that Chinese Export Silver requires a focused and specialized expertise; not only to sell it, but to accept it as a consignment in the first place and do so with the confidence that serves both the seller and the buyer well.

Once again, in the high Chinese decorative style, this compote by Shanghai retail silversmith Luen Wo, circa 1890, achieved $5,625. A little taller than 7 inches high and weighing a little more than 600gm, for a late 19th-century piece, this is remarkable.

This S. Kirk & Son silver repoussé ginger jar sold at the same sale for $1,375. It was decorated in the Chinese style. I can say with my hand firmly on my heart that had this been a tea caddy by Luen Wo, for instance, and in the same style, it would have achieved a figure comparable to the compote.

Chinese Export Silver is virtually always in varying degrees of high quality; I have yet to see a mediocre piece of Chinese Export Silver. Affording it respect by full and adequate identification is of paramount importance. We do this for high-quality British, American and European silver and we should be aware that Chinese buyers are also acquiring this silver, as well as “repatriating” silver that originated in China.

Why, then, should these buyers and sellers believe that equal care and effort is not being given to Chinese Export Silver? In a way, to adopt such an apathetic approach is giving an advantage to the prospective buyers; equally, it is doing an injustice to the consignees. Surely this is not in the best interest of all concerned—the buyers, the consignees and, dare I say it, the auction houses themselves.

Heritage Auctions and Auctionata have shown great initiative. WorthPoint was the trailblazer—you saw it on WorthPoint first!

My research continues; it’s taken two years to get to this point and there’s not only a lot yet to discover, but there’s a long way yet to go until Chinese Export Silver achieves full parity with its British, American and European cousins.


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.

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One Comments

  1. Farouk says:

    Dear Adrien,

    Thank you so much for your valuable information and in-depth article about Chinese Export Silver. Like you, I have been researching Ethnic, National & Regional art & craft from other parts of the world other than the European & American ones. Despite seeing amazing pieces of work mainly in the Middle East, North Africa, India Sub-continent, and South East Asia, I still do not understand the lack of interest or the western apathetic approach as you rightly put it.
    Fortunately, it was my collection of amazing Gem Wo of Canton collection which led me to your articles. I have taken some photos of it and I would love to share them with you.

    Drop me a line and I will be more than happy to email them to you, as I think it might help you in your research & who know, I might end up selling them to someone who will appreciate them more and claim/cherish/display them as a National heritage & treasure.

    All the best,

    Farouk