Meta-Museum – CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: HIGH QUALITY versus HIGH VALUES – NOT A CONFLICT

CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: HIGH QUALITY versus HIGH VALUES – NOT A  CONFLICT

Chinese Export Silver gets a lot of media coverage in the world of antiques and fine art,  often because it invariably achieved hammer prices at auction that grabs the headlines; articles extolling the quality of workmanship are sadly thin on the ground. While by default there has to be a link between high prices paid and high quality of object, it seems regrettable the former invariably overshadows the latter. Both phenomena are highly relevant subjects in their own right.

“Chinese Export Silver is the jewel in the crown of 1200 years of extraordinary silvermaking in China”. I put it in quotation marks as it’s an oft-repeated line of mine; it is a line, however, with a hefty foundation behind it. Chinese Export Silver exists as a definitive silver category because of two reasons – the quality of Chinese silversmiths was high, equalling the finest parallel Western silversmiths and the price for items these master craftsmen produced was low in relation to the price paid in the West at the time of manufacture. The quality, then and now, was never in dispute.

The all-important bottom line, therefore, is the quality was always perceived as being high. But when items do fetch prices that are particular remarkable, it is human nature that the price paid will be the headline – in saying that, however, even the least discerning buyer is highly unlikely to pay for an item that is of inferior quality even if it is in the context of acquiring back what might be perceived to be so-called “lost culture”.

This is all the more pronounced as when the item in question is small.

This is clearly a small snuff box. Not unusual other than its Chinese motif decoration you might think. Made circa 1818 it is chased in low relief on the cover and sides with traditional motifs of houses, river craft and figures, the base having a profuse floral decoration and the interior parcel gilded. The box contains an inscription dated 1818 and designated for Canton. Although unmarked as regards to the actual maker which is not unusual for a piece of this date, the box was sold at auction at Christies, South Kensington for £5625 [$9100] in February 2011. The box weighs a mere 93gm – that’s equivalent to over £60 a gram!

Similarly, this 19th century snuff box by the quite rare Hong Kong-based silversmith TKC weighing 75gm was sold by Daniel Bexfield, London for £1280 [$2010].

 

Literally two months ago this small green glass silver-caged bottle by Wang Hing & Co achieved a remarkable hammer price of £450 [$727] against a catalogue estimate of £40-£60 at Andrew Smith & Son, Winchester, UK.

This is a doubly significant example. To achieve a 10-fold result on an estimate is obvious. Equally, we could argue this is a fairly rare example of a caged Chinese Export Silver bottle.

Wang Hing was the master of silver cage-work. It was Wang Hing who created the peculiarly Chinese phenomenon of encasing Haig Dimple whisky bottles in order to convert them into decanters – a bottle that was first produced in the early 1890’s with a gilt wire cage, giving rise to the question was it the wire cage or the iconic bottle that gave Wang Hing the idea.

Here again, as 19th century decanters go, it is not unusual for a Wang Hing “Haig” decanter to now achieve a value of £3000 [$4800]. Looking at it simply as a commercial glass bottle and silver content alone, this might seem an inflated value, yet as a piece of master silversmithing it is indisputably noteworthy, not to mention quirky.

When it comes to Chinese Export Silver achieving values far above those we would expect from comparable British, Continental or American silver, we have to look at who the buyers are in order to understand the figures. I’ve discussed this before, but the fact that it is mainly affluent Chinese who have created these values should not cloud our judgement. Affluent they may be, but discerning they still are; nobody is buying Chinese Export Silver simply for the sake of having it. I’ve seen it time and time again in auction rooms; the high quality item will reach heights simply because of competitiveness of the attendant buyers  and the more mediocre pieces will achieve average prices.

At the other end of the scale, Chinese Export Silver can still offer us something on the grander end of the silver spectrum – the true museum pieces. This glorious and highly important Chinese Export Silver tea and coffee service and tray, originally gifted by Kaiser Wilhelm I to the German Crown Prince and Princess on the occasion of their 25th wedding anniversary was created by Lee Ching [Canton & Shanghai] in 1883. Weighing a grand total of 15,200gm, it was sold for an astonishing €144,000 at Lempertz, Cologne fairly recently.

Just as there are discerning buyers for Chinese Export Silver, there are discerning sellers and there are those attempting to get on board a perceived bandwagon. Online antique selling is a good platform to witness the latter, while equally one can discover high quality items, many of which are being offered by reputable sellers. The sellers who are offering items as Chinese Export Silver simply because the item might have Chinese decorative motifs or a maker’s mark in Chinese characters under the misapprehension  it is a “flavour of the month” silver category are doing the doing the quality pieces, of which there is a sizeable quantity out there, a great injustice.

The fact that the majority of the buyers are likely to be affluent Chinese and the fact there is still a considerable amount of good quality Chinese export Silver out there, this creates a micro-climate all of it’s own. As plants will flourish in a micro-climate, so will Chinese Export Silver – the achieved values will often be extraordinary to other antique silver categories.

Chinese Export Silver isn’t a bandwagon. It’s an antique silver category that is up there with the best of them. It has a history that is often richer than its European counterpart.It does, by default, present a potentially good investment opportunity because of the discerning group of end buyers. “Discerning” should be the operative word here; the sellers, the investors and the buyers all require it. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with extraordinary prices being paid for antiques if the buyer and the seller are happy. The price never alters the quality of the item.

Meanwhile, Chinese Export Silver is what it is; a highly respected silver category with a wonderfully rich history.

 

 

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