The Oddities, the Mysteries & Sometimes the Agonies of Chinese Export Silver

中國出口銀器: 奇異的, 神秘的, 也有時令人苦惱的

Chinese silversmiths generally tended to follow four main themes: rickshaws, sedans, pagodas and junks, of which these two items pictured are typical examples.

The rickshaw (top) is a three-piece condiment set by Wang Hing. The war junk above is also by Wang Hing. They are both made circa 1895.

One of the many advantages of being known as carrying out in-depth research into Chinese Export Silver and its complex history is that I receive a huge number of images from people from around the world. The volume has increased as readership grows; a noticeable spike in the graph occurred when I began collaborating with WorthPoint.

It is these images that form the backbone of undiscovered makers, their marks, the details of where they operated and show examples of items they manufactured, which often come with an equally interesting or complex history attached to them. I guess that means that one of the few advantages of the world we find ourselves living in is “file sharing!”

I thought it would be amusing to share some of the more recent “discoveries,” reversing the phenomenon that first brought them to me (is this some form of game of intellectual tennis?).

Chinese Export Silver has many quirky oddities; miniatures are one of them. Although silver miniatures are not particularly unique, the Chinese silversmiths generally tended to follow four main themes: rickshaws, sedans, pagodas and junks. In the world of Chinese Export Silver, there’s nothing remarkable about these items, but the Chinese silversmiths were very much masters of the novelty and occasionally some really extraordinary miniature items come to light.

One example of an interesting miniature is a silver wind-up gramophone; I have never seen another like it before. This fact alone puts this example into the “unusual” category, but it doesn’t end there. The maker is Li Sheng, who is the only maker I’ve come across who was operating in Cheng Du, Si Chuan Province. This particular piece is dated circa 1910. Li Sheng operated 1890-1935. The piece is also made of 0.85 silver, which is unusual but no unheard of—most Chinese Export Silver is of 0.90 quality, due to the fact that melted silver trade dollars were the main material source.

A Chinese Export Silver miniature wind-up gramophone led to the discovery of a new maker, Li Sheng, who was operating in Cheng Du, Si Chuan Province.

So what was discovered in this tiny gramophone was not just the piece itself, but a hitherto undiscovered maker and a place of manufacture that had no previously known maker of Chinese Export Silver documented as being based there.

While European silver miniature furniture is not unheard of, I have never seen miniature silver furniture before by a Chinese silversmith (by miniature, I am talking doll’s-house size). This example of a nest of four tables by Wang Hing, circa 1895 (above), displays particularly fine workmanship since each table slots perfectly into to the next making it high-precision silversmithing and the decorative detailing is superbly executed.

A Chinese Export Silver nest of four tables by Wang Hing, circa 1895.

It’s not always the case that it is the object itself that brings new or added knowledge; occasionally the original packing or box gives more insight into a maker or the object than the actual object or maker’s mark. For example the original box packaging to a Chinese Export Silver filigree card case made, obviously, by Khe Cheong of Canton, is was tailor-made specifically for it. The box also confirms that “Khe Cheong” should be two words instead of one, which has been the adopted format in most listings for this maker. It indicates that Khe Cheong was also a retailer/dealer as well as a maker; albeit it was known that Khe Cheong operated from two premises in Canton. The card case in question is filigree silver and, although Khe Cheong had several versions of his KHC mark, the card case appears not to carry a mark. This is not particularly unusual with Chinese Export Silver filigree card cases, but since silver filigree work is a very specific skill, it could indicate that Khe Cheong commissioned it from one of the few silver filigree master silversmiths working in China. All in all this adds to a more complete picture we normally have for what is essentially a fine piece of Chinese export Silver. The date for the card case is circa 1860.

But researching almost always leads to tangential discoveries. When I was presented with the image of this Khe Cheong packaging, I purely by chance stumbled upon a Khe Cheong casket box that was sold at auction on May 31, 2013, at Adam Partridge Auctioneers in the U.K. for a staggering £29,000 ($44,400). The box, weighing a hefty 8,490 grams, is quite unique and is fitted out as a sewing box. It is lavishly decorated with embossed peonies around a central cartouche on the lid and around the sides. The interior is fitted out with compartments and a drawer. The whole sits upon claw feet. This piece is so exceptional it almost has to have been specially commissioned. Had the card case not appeared in my life, the casket probably would have crept under my radar.

The original box packaging to a Chinese Export Silver filigree card case made by Khe Cheong of Canton was tailor-made specifically for it.

The card case in question is filigree silver and although Khe Cheong had several versions of his KHC mark, the card case appears not to carry a mark. This is not particularly unusual with Chinese Export Silver filigree card cases, but since silver filigree work is a very specific skill, it could indicate that Khe Cheong commissioned it from one of the few silver filigree master silversmiths working in China.

The maker’s mark on the case is a version of the Khe Cheong mark that is euphemistically referred to as a “pseudo hallmark,” indicating it is a fairly early example of this maker, circa 1845. The cherry on the cake, I suppose, is that the seller had found it, had no idea what it was and brought it to auction. Needless to say, they were glad they did!

Another example is a Chinese Export Silver matchbox cover. Again, this is not an unusual piece of silver, per se, but it carries a maker’s mark which, at the time of receiving the images, was not a documented maker. After researching the mark, I discovered it was a maker called Yi Tai, so first of all, a “new” maker was discovered. But it didn’t end there—this maker operated in Xi’an in Shaanxi Province, circa 1890-1920. Xi’an is in Northwest China, which was ceded to the Russian Empire under the Treaty of St Petersburg in 1881. I’ve never come across silver from Xi’an prior to this.

When I was presented with the image of this Khe Cheong packaging, I purely by chance stumbled upon a Khe Cheong casket box that was sold at auction on May 31, 2013, at Adam Partridge Auctioneers in the U.K. for a staggering £29,000 ($44,400).

So, a small, relatively insignificant item suddenly becomes a big discovery! Although silver matchbox slip covers are not unusual in English and American antique silver, Chinese Export Silver versions are believed by some to be opium-smoking accessories within the more gentrified users.

The only example of a “Monteith” bowl I’ve seen by a Chinese Export Silver maker is this superb bowl by the Shanghai maker Luen Wo, circa 1890. It is wonderfully decorated with a repoussé work coastal scene with characters and a shaped finely pierced rim with swirling dragons chasing pearls.

Once again, a Monteith is such a specific object that this, too, is almost certainly a commissioned piece. Historically, as a form, Monteith-style bowls date back to the 17th century. Their scalloped rims are so designed as to allow stemmed wine cups to be suspended by the foot and chilled in iced water contained in the bowl. The name “Monteith” is believed to have come from an eccentric Scot who wore a cloak with a scalloped hem. This particular piece, though, is a fine example of how Chinese Export Silver makers were able to adapt an essentially European form and object and decorate it in the high Chinese style.

This silver matchbox slip covers are not unusual in English and American antique silver, Chinese Export Silver ones are believed by some to be opium-smoking accessories within the more gentrified users.

The only example of a “Monteith” bowl I’ve seen by a Chinese Export Silver maker is this superb bowl by the Shanghai maker Luen Wo, circa 1890.

Chinese Export Silver tot beakers are also not rare, but when I was presented with a photo of it, the maker’s mark was something I had to research. This is how I discovered the maker Wan-Pao, who’s maker was next to a mark “Tsingtau.”

Chinese Export Silver tot beakers are also not rare, but when I was presented with a photo of it, the maker’s mark was something I had to research. This is how I discovered the maker Wan-Pao, who’s maker was next to a mark “Tsingtau.”

Through my research I learned that “Tsingtau” was the German Romanization of the city name “Qīngdǎo.” Not only was the maker a new discovery for me, but what makes Qīngdǎo interesting is that it was a German concession renamed Tsingtau from 1898-1914. Wan-Pao is unusual in as much as it was making silver in the high Chinese style specifically for the German market.

The headline of this article contains the word “agonies,” and I’m sure this intrigues many people as to why. When a mystery item or maker presents itself, researching it is usually far from straight forward. The China Trade in general was not particularly well-documented; the Chinese themselves were historically systems- and documentation-averse. Much of the trade conducted between the foreign merchants and the Cohong was so convoluted, it was almost certainly not something they would have relished being documented. Private travel journals, editorial articles in China-centric magazines of the time (of which there were surprisingly quite a few) and individual ships’ manifests are the main source of information and discovery. It takes a good deal of searching. A fair amount of hair-pulling and a reasonable degree of being in the right place at the right time to often solve a Chinese Export Silver mystery!

It is in the mysteries that the information is usually buried awaiting discovery.


“Such is the essential mystery”

— LaoZi (600 BC-531 BC), Chinese philosopher, a contemporary of Confucius and founder of Taoism, is the author of “Tao Te Ching.


Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills;

To Skinner Auctioneers, Boston; Robert H Bezuijen at Marani Fine Art, Melbourne, Australia; Adam Partridge Auctioneers, UK; George Glastris, Chicago; and Linda Berman, Glasgow;

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. 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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