Catherine the Great Owned the Ultimate Collection of Chinese Silver Filigree Works

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Catherine the Great inaugurating the new Imperial Academy of Art in 1765 at the Shuvalov Palace in St Petersburg; just another day at the office for her Imperial Highness.

Catherine the Great could never be called a simple girl; to do so would be a gross understatement of the reality that was this supremely extrovert empress.

Looking at the image above, depicting Catherine the Great inaugurating the new Imperial Academy of Art in 1765 at the Shuvalov Palace in St Petersburg, it is a veritable cornucopia of shamelessly pastel fripperies. But Catherine simply embraced this style to the extent where she was not only Empress of all Russia, but also of all style. Catherine could quite easily be appointed the patron saint of retail therapy, finding extravagant extensions to her already vast palaces the easiest way to appropriately house her obsessive acquisitions. The word “minimalism” was not in her vocabulary.

Catherine the Great by the Danish artist Vigilius Erichsen.

In another painting of Catherine (above), painted by the Danish artist Vigilius Erichsen, we see Catherine in a dress that is so spectacularly panniered, she can actually lean her left elbow upon it like some rather convenient shelf. The fact, we are allowed to see this enlightened despot as she really was—in the mirrored profile image—and the more idealistic view of how she insisted she looked is particularly interesting (perhaps Catherine had a “special relationship” with Mr. Erichsen). But together, they give a fairly accurate measure of her abundantly voracious sexual, social and political appetites. But we need to pay particular attention to the Imperial crown that sits upon a satin cushion before the mirror and the rather sumptuous upper part of her costume.

This pair of Qianlong Chinese export silver gilt filigree vases and covers, unmarked, late 18th century, with ball finials to the domed covers, realized $40,600 to lead 13 pieces of Chinese Export Silver in an auction hosted by Dreweatts & Bloomsbury on Feb. 26, 2014.

Comparing the crown and Catherine’s costume with this exquisite pair of Chinese Export Silver and silver gilt lidded urns (above), we can immediately see what connects them in terms of all being very much a product of the late rococo period; we can also see what attracted Catherine to be driven to amass what must be the ultimate collection of silver filigree objects, much of it from Chinese silversmiths in Canton.

In late 18th century Canton, there was one silversmith who particularly gained a reputation as the consummate creator of superb items of filigree in the rococo style; filigree and the rococo were almost born to be together. The silversmith in question is Pao Ying, and we know of him operating from Old China Street from roughly 1780, which indicates he was probably a retail silversmith who commissioned items from artisan silversmiths firmly under his control. The late 17th century is when we see the very beginnings of the Chinese Export Silver manufacturing period; it is also still a period where much of the silver made in China did not carry any silver mark and Pao Ying is one of the earliest makers to begin adopting this formal identification.

Pao Ying’s earliest mark we know of is actually a mark that is simply scratched into the silver (left); incised marks were to follow (right).


We can see more clearly from the detailing in these urns that the applied decorative motifs are inspired by the dress fashion of the period. It is highly likely the floral and foliate elements were originally embellished with champlevé coloured enamel work.

The background silver wire work is an interesting fusion of what is considered traditional silver filigree work of Jewish silversmiths and the equally traditional Chinese swirling cloud motif yún—an auspicious decorative motif that dates from the Han Dynasty representing both the heavens and linguistic twin brother “good fortune” yùn.

Chinese decorative culture has an inherent dislike of blank space and it for this reason Chinese Imperial robes would be encrusted with the swirling cloud motif. The urns, therefore, are an interesting fusion of a Chinese traditional motif meeting a very Western rococo style applied to a neo-classical form that was the style that would supersede very shorty after these urns were likely to have been created.

We can see the similarity between the filigree cloud treatment and this detail from a Chinese porcelain ginger jar.

This almost identical set of urns have been attributed to Pao Ying and dated circa 1800. It is identical work to much of the Chinese Export Silver filigree items that formerly belonged to Catherine the Great.

Above we have a pair of almost identical urns that have been attributed to Pao Ying and dated circa 1800. It is identical work to much of the Chinese Export Silver filigree items that formerly belonged to Catherine the Great and now form part of the largest single collection of Chinese silver filigree in the world, to be found at the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.

This set of five silver gilt caskets formed part of the Empress’s 32-piece toilet set at the Winter Palace.

These stunningly exquisite pair of boxes form part of the same extraordinary set and were used for storing lipsticks and rouges; created as crabs, they sit upon trays that are probably the finest example of Chinese silver filigree. Why crabs? There is a subtle allegorical meaning to these boxes that only someone such as Catherine could fully appreciate. Each crab is holding a sprig of a rice plant; in Chinese culture this combination forms a rebus that symbolizes peace and harmony. But a crab is also symbolic of a “iron clad general.”

The pair of silver gilt filigree urns we saw at the beginning of this article are incredibly important pieces; they are rare as a surviving pair and they are rare because they are of the late rococo era and could only have been originally made for a person of standing of that era. Who that person was remains a mystery, but the urns were a star lot in the auction held at Dreweatts & Bloomsbury on Feb. 26. They are also important surviving pieces of the early Chinese Export Silver period and of the China Trade period itself. As such, they have huge relevance as items of late 18th-century Chinese history.

Historically, most Chinese collectors have shunned Chinese Export Silver that is not overtly Chinese in decorative motifs. It is a trend that is slowly changing, as collectors become more aware of the complex and rich history this silver category represents. These urns are examples of the pinnacle of the skill and art of Chinese silversmiths; they are also fine examples of an era where the finest of China was sought by kings, queens, emperors and the Empress of all Empresses, Catherine the Great.

”You philosophers are lucky men. You write on paper and paper is patient. Unfortunate Empress that I am, I write on the susceptible skins of living beings.”

— Catherine the Great

Thanks: to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills; to State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg; Musée du Louvre, Paris; Ralph M Chait Galleries, New York.

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive, managed by Christopher Hunter at

Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research and works with museums and universities around the world. He is a consultant for Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions and 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

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