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A Serious Case of Mistaken Identity Finally Revealed

by Adrien von Ferscht (08/30/13).

中國出口銀器: 一個被錯誤辨認已久的身份終於被揭露了

Here we have a Chinese Export Silver tea caddy that is currently offered for sale and is attributed to Kan Mao Hsing.

The maker’s mark clearly shows it was, in fact, made by Tu Mao Xing.

There is no such maker as Kan Mao Hsing!
This article is focuses upon a long-running case of mistaken identity of an important Chinese silversmith who has never been given the recognition he is rightly due. To understand why and how this happened, we need to remind ourselves of how the world first became aware of Chinese Export Silver. To correct the mistake, in the world of Chinese Export Silver, this is quite a groundbreaking moment!

Ever since Dr. H. A. Crosby Forbes and his two co-writing colleagues, John Devereux Kernan and Ruth Wilkins, first made the world aware of the existence of Chinese Export Silver in their publication in 1975, a steep learning curve began.

The work—created under the aegis of the Museum of the American China Trade, a museum that Dr. Crosby Forbes created in 1964 in what was essentially the ancestral family home—was carried out at a time when his estimate of the amount of Chinese Export Silver in the West had been revised to 2,000 pieces. As the original name of the museum might suggest, the work was also carried out as an American-centric project; a slant which is totally understandable, given his own family ties to the China Trade and to the Forbes, Russell and Perkins merchant families—all major stakeholders in Canton in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Dr. H. A. Crosby Forbes, who worked with colleagues, John Devereux Kernan and Ruth Wilkins, first made the world aware of the existence of Chinese Export Silver in their publication in 1975, when a steep learning curve began. Dr. Crosby Forbes’ estimate of the amount of Chinese Export Silver in the West was originally set at 2,000 pieces.

Although Dr. Crosby Forbes spent more than two decades as curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., none of his research and writing about Chinese Export Silver nor the work he carried out with Kernan and Wilkins, was carried out within a strict academic framework. The fact, that he chose to exclude silver that was connected with the British trade in China at the time is slightly perplexing, since British trade with China was established before the Boston merchant families began and was also on a larger scale, given the virtual monopoly of the British East India Company. So, although vast quantities of silverwares did make their way to America from Canton and other treaty ports in China, equally vast quantities were sent to Great Britain and, importantly, to its colonies in Canada, Australia, South Africa and to its South East Asian colonies and protectorates. The very catalyst that created the China Trade—the Treaty of Nanking—was between the Emperor of China and Queen Victoria or the Chinese Empire and the British Empire as they then were.

Without Crosby Forbes’ works, my own research would probably never have happened. But, as life has moved on, so has availability of and access to information. It was the realization not only of the size Chinese Export Silver is as a silver category, but the importance of it as masterfully created works of art and the incredibly rich and convoluted history that is attached to it that caused the University of Glasgow to allow me to carry out the research. My work, therefore, has never been about making a point of correcting Crosby Forbes, Kernan or Wilkins. It has been, instead, about embracing their work and moving it forward into the world today, using it as a nucleus to sometimes reshape but more often to build upon. Kernan himself acknowledged the fact that others would further the field of research.

Given the Chinese were always systems and documentation-averse, identifying makers is challenging, to say the least. This is obviously exacerbated by the language and cultural barriers one has to be prepared to overcome, which, in turn, is challenged by the Chinese love of “artistic license” and, I suspect, a sense of humor.

Among “new” Chinese Export Silver makers identified in 1985 was a Jiujang silversmith that was named as Kan Mao Hsing (Gan Mao Hsing). Ever since, auction houses, dealers and specialists have identified silver bearing the marks as Kan Mao Hsing.

In 1985, Kernan’s catalogue for the exhibition of Chinese Export Silver held at the Ralph M Chait Galleries in New York contained details of several previously unknown silversmiths. Kernan collaborated at the time with Fong Chow on transliterating Chinese characters used in makers’ marks; Fong Chow, who worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a recognized expert in Chinese ceramics and Buddhist sculpture. Among the “new” makers was a Jiujang silversmith that was named as Kan Mao Hsing (Gan Mao Hsing). Ever since, auction houses, dealers and specialists have identified silver bearing the marks as Kan Mao Hsing.

So what’s the problem? The problem is that the correct transliteration of the mark is Tu Mao Xing, a name that some have regarded as an obscure other maker working in the same city, Jiujang. The error seems to be a simple and probably understandable: mistaking of the character 涂, which transliterates correctly as TU, with the character 淦, which correctly transliterates as KAN (GAN). The reality of that error has been to relegate Tu Mao Xing into virtual obscurity and to attribute some of his work to a maker who does simply not exist. The reality is there is no such maker as Kan Mao Hsing.

As I said previously, auction houses and specialists around the world have systematically taken it for granted that Kernan’s reference is correct.

Tu Mao Xing is literally an unsung master of Chinese Export Silver making. I also believe quite strongly that because of the focus historically having been mainly on the Canton, ShangHai and Hong Kong makers, the makers of Jiujang, Tientsin and other regional cities and towns have been greatly overlooked; a fact that is our loss, as well as a loss to their reputations. Equally, virtually no reference was ever given to the incredible work of silversmiths in ShangHai known loosely as “The Nine Factories” in Crosby Forbes and Kernan’s works. Some of these makers go back as far as the late 17th century and much of their work is equal, if not superior, to many of the “mainstream” makers we have become familiar with. The exclusion of many of these makers is probably due in part to the America-centric nature of Crosby Forbes’ and Kernan’s works. I also believe more of the work from these makers probably came to Great Britain than might have gone to America; we know that some of these makers feature in major European collections of Chinese Export Silver including the Royal Collection in the U.K.

But, bizarrely, the confusion over identity doesn’t end here. It’s understandable cataloguing a piece of Tu Mao Xing silver as Kan Mao Hsing, but to call it Kwong Man Shing is a step too far! Kwong Man Shing was a real maker operating in a totally different city, in fact two cities; Canton and Hong Kong. For clarification, Kwong Man Shing used makers’ marks that, although varied in format, always carried the Latin letters KMS. Tu Mao Xing (previously known as Kan Mao Hsing) only ever used marks in Chinese characters. Therefore, for the record:

TU MAO XING: Jiujang, Jiangxi Province, circa 1880-1930
KWONG MAN SHING: Hong Kong & Canton, circa 1880-1920
KAN MAO HSING: Does not exist!

As to the steep learning curve, my own research continues and I believe that it has probably reached the point where much of the surface delving is coming to a natural end. It doesn’t end there, though; the Third Edition of my catalogue of makers’ marks is nearing completion and although almost 200 makers are now feature, mistakes will still be made and errors will still be discovered further down the line. Such is the nature of learning curves. What I do believe, though, is there is a greater understanding of Chinese Export Silver developing that bodes well, for it too will grow and eventually place Chinese Export Silver as a significant and important silver category. The curve still has a way to climb yet, and my research is entering a new phase; one where we shall discover the real meat on the bone.

Hopefully, exquisite tankards such as this will no longer be wrongly catalogued (and sold) as being Kan Mao Hsing when it is a fine example of Tu Mao Xing, as the mark clearly states. Nobody does dragons like Tu Mao Xing. You cannot mistake them and this should be a clue that screams at you when confronted with a dragon that stands out from the crowd.

Here we have a circa 1890 tea set by Tu Mao Xing; a set that was incorrectly catalogued as being by Kan Mao Hsing by an international auction house when it was sold. However, the successful bidder was from China and was physically at the auction. He was able identify the mark and understood exactly what he was bidding on.

While nothing surprises me during my investigation of Chinese Export Silver, one thing is a given: the complexity and richness of the history and culture is inextricably linked to it. It is unique among the family of world silver.

In the days of Crosby Forbes and Kernan, Chinese Export Silver rarely was seen at auction houses and Chinese buyers were extremely thin on the ground. We have a complete reverse situation today, where Chinese buyers are plentiful and are drawn in particular to Chinese Export Silver that is overtly Chinese in decoration. Auction houses and dealers need to pay more heed to correct identification. I, myself, have made the same error as these auction houses by glibly accepting Kernan’s misidentification. It was only my research and the interaction I have with collectors and experts around the world that I understood the error of my ways.

Hopefully, Tu Mao Xing will begin to be credited for the extraordinary work that came from that manufactory and be allowed to take a well-earned place of honor in the hierarchy of Chinese Export Silver makers


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

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.

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