Silversmith Wang Hing didn’t have Breakfast at Tiffany’s!
Audrey Hepburn from “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” For almost 30 years there has been a widely held view that the most prolific of the Chinese Export Silver makers, Wang Hing, was an acknowledged supplier of silver wares to the New York-based luxury goods company Tiffany & Company. But is it true. I now believe it is not true.
For almost 30 years there has been a widely held view that the most prolific of the Chinese Export Silver makers, Wang Hing, was an acknowledged supplier of silver wares to the New York-based luxury goods company Tiffany & Company; it is probably the most oft-cited piece of information linked to Wang Hing and is quoted by auction houses, silver dealers and collectors around the world, myself included.
In articles I have written in the past, I have sometimes quoted the reference and, at times, I have been challenged about it. There is the known documented existence of several pieces of Wang Hing silver that carries an inscription:
TIFFANY & CO
My own research, however, has uncovered no tangible documentary evidence that Wang Hing did have a so-called “special relationship” with Tiffany & Co. To either justify or dismiss this general belief that had become a permanent part of the Chinese Export Silver landscape, the archive department at Tiffany & Co. agreed to carry out an investigation with me that involved scouring the entire archived ledgers from 1858-1906. The results show there is no documentary evidence that Wang Hing was a direct supplier to Tiffany during this period.
So where did this belief originate? There appear to be two historical written sources. One is the 1985 body of work by John Devereux Kernan, “The Chait Collection of Chinese Export Silver,” in which the author catalogues an oval Wang Hing box that happens to be one of the items now known to carry the afore-mentioned Tiffany special order inscription.
The oval Wang Hing box that happens to be one of the items now known to carry the afore-mentioned Tiffany special order inscription
The catalogue entry is shown below cited in John Devereux Kernan’s “The Chait Collection of Chinese Export Silver.”
This also appears to be how the general belief that this particular version of the Wang Hing mark began life. This is an incorrect assumption; in fact no Wang Hing maker’s mark was ever devised for exclusive use with Tiffany in New York, or any other retailer. While this particular mark is one of the only versions of the Wang Hing mark that has any degree of consistency, it is the mark used by Tai Kut, who was a known silver workshop in its own right, as well as a maker for Wang Hing & Company.
the only versions of the Wang Hing mark that has any degree of consistency, it is the mark used by Tai Kut
Tai Kut’s own mark (above) had a consistently similar format to the mark it used on Wang Hing items, implying that Tai Kut may also have had a retail operation as well as a manufacturing workshop. Whether there’s an underlying implication due to the similarity and the consistency that there was a closer working relationship or even a co-ownership between Wang Hing and Tai Kut other than supplier and customer, this requires further research. Certainly, Tai Kut “chopmarks” appear quite frequently on Wang Hing pieces.
Interestingly, Kernan never seems to have acknowledged the fact that Wang Hing was a retail silversmith. In fact, Wang Hing was not a dissimilar operation to Tiffany in as much as it was a luxury goods emporium that was a purveyor of silverwares under its own mark. Below we see two images of the newly opened Wang Hing retail emporium at Zetland House in Queen’s Road, Hong Kong, circa 1895, and the newly opened Tiffany store in Union Square West in Manhattan in 1870. Apart from the similarity of operation they conducted, it is obvious that Tiffany had a penchant for “oriental objects” and that many of them must have been imported, rather than made in one of the Tiffany workshops.
The Hong Kong emporium of Wang Hing, circa 1895.
The new Tiffany Fifth Avenue store, circa 1860s.
The interior of the Union Square West store of Tiffany & Co., Manhattan, circa 1887.
The other source that appears to have helped spawn the Tiffany/Wang Hing belief is the book “Antique Trader Oriental Antiques & Art,” edited by Mark Moran and published in 2003 as a second edition. The book makes mention of a quote attributed to Charles Lewis Tiffany that describes a visit he made to a silver shop on Old China Street in Canton in 1844. As far as is known, Charles L. Tiffany made no visit to China, despite the fact it is known he had an obsession with both the Chinese and the Japanese styles. However, a Tiffany did make an expedition to China in 1844—an Osmond Tiffany Jr. who published a book in 1849 that details his China travels “The Canton Chinese: Or the American’s Sojourn in The Celestial Empire.” Wires inevitably became crossed in the 2003 book between Charles Lewis and Osmond Tiffany and this has obviously caused a degree of confusion.
That said, we still know that items of Wang Hing Chinese Export Silver do exist that bear the secondary mark attesting to the fact they were special orders for Tiffany & Co., creating somewhat of a conundrum.
Tiffany & Co, from its inception, was scrupulous about ledger records of all transactions, including those with its suppliers. If the ledgers indicate there was no direct supply line between Wang Hing in Canton and Tiffany in New York, then the only other possibility is that a third party was the supplier. Documentary evidence exists in the form of shipping manifests from some of the known Massachusetts Bay merchants operating between Boston and Canton that silver wares were in regular shipments of larger cargoes of tea and even opium. Silver fell into the same cargo category as Chinese porcelain—substantial as it was, silver was generally considered as a “filler” cargo. We are also aware of correspondences between American and Canton agents requesting specific silver items.
My own belief is that the most likely merchant company was Russell & Co., a substantial Boston shipping merchant company that was a pioneer of the American involvement in the China Trade in Canton that had quickly established itself there as one of the most influential. Russell & Co. had a close working relationship with the most powerful Hong merchant Houqua that resulted in the latter eventually investing heavily in Russell & Co., which in turn led to Houqua investing heavily in the early development of American railroads. Both Houqua and the Canton representatives of Russell & Co.—which, for much of the time, was a member of the Forbes family—would have had various business dealings with Wang Hing & Company. One of the main Wang Hing retail emporia was in Old China Street and physically backed on to the site of the American factory in the international treaty area on Shameen Island in Canton.
A Tiffany rose bowl, circa 1907, manufactured by Tiffany is in the Chinese
style but it is not typical of silver made during the Chinese Export Silver period in China.
The copious records of Russell & Co. are held at the Baker Library at Harvard Business School and my ongoing research will, at some point fairly soon, be focused on that archived resource I previously mentioned noting that Tiffany had a fascination with the Chinese style. The item above—a Tiffany rose bowl that was manufactured in Tiffany’s own workshops in Newark, New Jersey post 1907—is an example of that. It is a beautiful bowl in the Chinese style but it is not typical of silver made in China during the Chinese Export Silver period.
A Chinese Export Silver bowl by Hung Chong, circa 1900, using the same chrysanthemum decorative motif as the Tiffany bowl above, but unmistakably Chinese in its execution.
The bowl pictured above, however, is a Chinese Export Silver bowl by Hung Chong, circa 1900, using the same chrysanthemum decorative motif but unmistakably Chinese in its execution. Note the finely planished ground, the broad rim and the tapered base plinth, both typical of the latter half of the 19th century for Chinese Export Silver and not present in the Tiffany version. Below we have a Wang Hing example, also circa 1900. Despite the obvious decorative differences between the two Chinese bowls, they have certain shared characteristics that are again missing in the Tiffany version.
A Wang Hing example, also circa 1900. Despite the obvious decorative differences between the two Chinese bowls, they have certain shared characteristics that are again missing in the Tiffany version.
Apart from the authentic Chinese Export Silver items that did make it to the Tiffany showrooms, Tiffany’s take on the Chinese style was in general a very idealized one that suited his own personal tastes and fitted in well with the prevalent high Victorian fashion that New York developed as its own interpretation of the parallel style across the Atlantic in London. The New York version tended to be even fussier than the English original.
The jug on the left is one of the earlier silver items Tiffany produced in the Newark workshops in the “Chinese” style. It is very Victorian with slight gothic overtones; it is also an object that could never have come from China, despite the overt decorative motifs. On the right we have a slightly later baluster jug by Wang Hing; a Chinese silversmith would never have produced a handle and spout as we see on the Tiffany piece.
The Tiffany obsession with the oriental style lasted some 40 years, much of it tending towards a theatrically exaggerated interpretation. Tiffany knew his clientele and a jug such as the Wang Hing version we see above simply wouldn’t have felt at home in the exaggerated Victorian confections we saw in the mansions appearing up and down Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue—chinoiserie of the Regency period. The influences, however, originated in the workshops of Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong.
There are other known Chinese Export Silver items that are either attributable to having passed through a Tiffany store, or items that carry both the Wang Hing marks and those of Tiffany. In the latter third of the 19th century, Wang Hing trophies appear to be the most popular object that came to be “blessed” with the Tiffany mark. By this time, Wang Hing & Company had established itself as the preferred purveyor of trophies and cups to the numerous Western-style institutions and clubs in Hong Kong, Shanghai and the other Chinese treaty ports.
A lidded trophy cup by Wang Hing bearing the engraved inscription “Hong Kong 1883” (not attributed to Tiffany & Co.)
Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly, character checking out the wares at a window in the Tiffany’s & Co. store in Manhattan.
“Well, when I get it the only thing that does any good is to jump in a cab and go to Tiffany’s. Calms me down right away. The quietness and the proud look of it. Nothing very bad could happen to you there”.
– Holly Golightly in Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”
Thanks: Danny Cheng, for his translation skills and to Annamarie Sandecki & Amy McHugh at Tiffany & Co, New York. Acknowledgments: Spencer Marks Ltd, Southampton, Massachusetts; Heritage Auctions, Dallas, Texas; The British Library, London; Tiffany & Co Archives, New York; Michael Backman Ltd, London, Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions, UK
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 new 250-page Third Edition of the “Collector’s Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940,” is the largest information reference resource for this unique silver category. 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 email@example.com.
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