The Tale of a Hidden Chinese Export Silver Gem
When I first saw this Chinese Export Silver snuff box, it screamed “Georgian” to me in almost every way other than the obvious decorative motifs employed.
Being a regular contributor to WorthPoint has its benefits—for me, that is! My main source of research tangents comes from people sharing images of items with me. This has so often led to my discovering hitherto unknown silversmiths operating in China in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries. The flow of image-sharing has actually increased considerably since I began writing for WorthPoint, making it not only an incredibly good information source, but the contraflow in my direction helps my ongoing research no end.
A New York-based WorthPoint reader contacted me two weeks ago with images of a silver snuff box. I was instantly excited when I saw the images; I knew this was going to be a gem in the making!
When I first saw the box, it screamed “Georgian” to me in almost every way other than the obvious decorative motifs employed. The silver color, the hinge mechanism and the general feel of the box is pure late 18th century.
The maker’s mark reads “Kwan Quan,” a maker that hitherto was unknown to me. The general style of the box gives a clue. There are obvious Western Georgian influences, yet the box has obviously been made in China. Canton seemed the natural assumption, it being the port that in the late 18th century where foreign trading posts were operating, in conjunction with the Canton Cohongs. After some degree of research, I was able to establish that a “Kwan Wo” did operate in Canton, circa 1790-1820, making him one of the earliest recorded Chinese Export Silver makers using a maker’s mark!
Here we can see the decoration of the lid and the hinge mechanism.
The base of the box. The general feel of the box is pure late 18th century.
The sides of the box include this superb detailing.
Given the whole nature of Canton at this period, I would hazard a guess this piece was commissioned by one of the Massachusetts Bay merchants operating in Canton at the time. The box, I feel, has a more American Georgian feel to it than English or Scottish. The presence of Chinese-style motifs indicates the box is for someone who is used to or has a relationship with China.
The maker’s mark, which has been placed inside the box, reads “Kwan Quan,” a maker that hitherto was unknown to me.
This snuff box is therefore a very rare piece of museum quality. WorthPoint was the catalyst that brought it to light.
Back in 2011, a Chinese Export Silver snuff box (below) achieved a stupendous hammer price of $8,740 at Christie’s, South Kensington in London. Unlike the Kwan Quan snuff box, this box was unmarked but it contains and engraved inscription that dates it at 1818 and mentions Canton. The box weighs a mere 93 grams. In silver weight terms, this box worth almost $94 a gram!
This Chinese Export Silver snuff box achieved a stupendous hammer price of $8,740 at Christie’s, South Kensington in London, in 2011.
Chinese Export Silver snuff boxes are generally of high quality. This is probably due to the fact that many of them were commissioned by the foreign sea merchants operating in Canton, making them more personal objects to treasure and use, rather than speculative items to sell in the West.
Since there was no rigid documentation of items created during the Chinese Export Silver period, as well as a total lack of registration of makers’ marks, researching this highly significant silver category often takes me on magical mystery tours that are more likely than not to have been instigated by image-sharing and question-asking. My research would be all the poorer without it.
Here we have a Chinese Export Silver snuff box made by a Hong Kong maker known only as T.K.C. It is rare to find items from this maker and this box, superbly decorated in the high Chinese style, was sold in London for $2,000. The box weighs 75gm.
This Chinese Export Silver snuff box is also in the high Chinese style, using figures standing within a foliate motif on the lid and scrolling peony and foliage motif around the edge of the box. It was made by Lee Ching, a Chinese Export Silver maker who operated in Canton, Shanghai and Hong Kong. My research has shown the maker’s true name was actually Ching Li. He operated between 1840 and 1880. The box was sold at a prominent London dealer.
This unmarked Chinese Export Silver snuff box was sold at Bonhams, London, for $1,000 this year.
My research has also highlighted the fact that probably half of the Chinese Export Silver in the West is in the United States, the next largest country being the Great Britain. My encouragement to people to image-share items also shows that most people haven’t a clue what they actually possess and it is often one of my articles that kick starts the realization that someone may just have a hidden treasure. WorthPoint is therefore a good platform to discover what I hope will be an endless stream of would-be Chinese Export Silver gems.
Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills, to Rob Atkinson for images, to Daniel Bexfield, London, and Michael Backman, London Bonhams, London and Christie’s South Kensington, London.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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