META-MUSEUM: CHINESE EXPORT SILVER: The oddities, the mysteries & sometimes the agonies! 中國出口銀器: 奇異的, 神秘的, 也有時令人苦惱的.

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One of the many advantages of being known as carrying out in-depth research into Chinese Export Silver and its complex history is that I receive a huge number of images from people from around the world. The volume has increased as readership grows; a noticeable spike in the graph occurred when I began collaborating with WorthPoint. It is these images that form the backbone of undiscovered makers, their marks, the details of where they operated and images of items they manufactured which often come with an equally interesting or complex history attached to them. I guess that means that one of the few advantages of the world we find ourselves living in is “file sharing”!

I thought it would be amusing to share some of the more recent “discoveries”, reversing the phenomenon that first brought them to me [is this some form of game of intellectual tennis?]!

Chinese Export Silver has many quirky oddities; miniatures is one of them. Although silver miniatures are not particularly unique, the Chinese silversmiths generally tended to follow four main themes: rickshaws, sedans, pagodas and junks, of which the two items featured below are typical examples.

Wang Hing Rickshaw & War Junk

Li Sheng Miniature GramophoneOn the right we have a Chinese Export Silver miniature wind-up gramophone; I have never seen another before. This already puts this example into the “unusual” category, but it doesn’t end there. The maker is Li Sheng and is the only maker I’ve come across who was operating in Cheng Du, Si Chuan Province. This particular piece is dated circa 1910. Li Sheng operated 1890-1935. The piece is also made of .85 silver, which is unusual but no unheard of – most Chinese Export Silver is .90 quality due to the fact that melted silver trade dollars were the main material source.

So what was discovered in this tiny gramophone was not just the piece itself but a hitherto undiscovered maker and a place of manufacture that had no previously known maker of Chinese Export Silver documented as being based there.

Wang Hing Nest of Tables

Pictured above, we have a circa 1895 Chinese Export Silver nest of 4 tables by Wang Hing. While European silver miniature furniture is not unheard of, I have never seen miniature silver furniture before by a Chinese silversmith [by miniature, I am talking doll’s house size]. This example displays particularly fine workmanship since each table slots perfectly into to the next making it high-precision silversmithing and the decorative detailing is superbly executed.

It’s not always the case that it is the object itself that brings new or added knowledge; occasionally the original packing or box gives more insight into a maker or the object than the actual object or maker’s mark. A good example can be seen below:

Khe Cheong Box Lid

Above we have the original box packaging toKhe Cheong Card Case a Chinese Export Silver filigree card case made, obviously, by Khe Cheong of Canton. The case, which we see pictured right, is quite obviously from this box that was tailor-made specifically for it. The box also confirms, that Khe Cheong should be two words instead of one, which has been the adopted format in most listings for this maker. It indicates that Khe Cheong was also a retailer/dealer as well as a maker; albeit it was known that Khe Cheong operated from 2 premises in Canton. The card case in question is filigree silver and although Khe Cheong had several versions of his KHC mark, the card case appears not to carry a mark. This is not particularly unusual with Chinese Export Silver filigree card cases, but since silver filigree work is a very specific skill, it could indicate that Khe Cheong commissioned it from one of the few silver filigree master silversmiths working in China. All in all this adds to a more complete picture we normally have for what is essentially a fine piece of Chinese export Silver. The date for the card case is circa 1860.

But researching almost always leads to tangential discoveries and purely by chance when I was presented with the image of this Khe Cheong packaging, I stumbled upon a Khe Cheong casket box [below] that was sold at auction on 31st May 2013 at Adam Partridge Auctioneers in the UK for a staggering £29,000 [$44,400]. The box, weighing a hefty 8490gm is quite unique and is fitted out as a sewing box. It is lavishly decorated with embossed peonies around a central cartouche on the lid and around the sides. The interior is fitted out with compartments and a drawer. The whole sits upon claw feet. This piece is so exceptional it almost has to have been specially commissioned. Had the card case not appeared in my life, the casket probably would have crept under my radar.

The maker’s mark is a version of the Khe Cheong mark that is euphemistically referred to as a “pseudo hallmark”, indicating it is a fairly early example of this maker, circa 1845. The cherry on the cake, I suppose, is that the seller had found it, had no idea what it was and brought it to auction. Needless to say, they were glad they did!

Khe Cheong Sewing Casket

Yi Tai Matchbox CoverNow we have a Chinese Export Silver matchbox cover. Again, this is not an unusual piece of silver, per se, but it carries a maker’s mark which, at the time of receiving the images, was not a documented maker. After researching the mark, I discovered it was a maker called Yi Tai, so first of all a “new” maker was discovered. But it didn’t end there – this maker operated in Xi’an in Shaanxi Province circa 1890-1920.  Xi’an is in North West China, which was ceded to the Russian Empire under the Treaty of St Petersburg in 1881. I’ve never come across silver from Xi’an prior to this.

So a small relatively insignificant item suddenly becomes a big discovery! Although silver matchbox slip covers are not unusual in English and American antique silver, Chinese Export Silver ones are believed by some to be opium  smoking accessories within the more gentrified users.

Luen Wo Monteith

Here on the right we have a superb circa 1890 Chinese Export Silver “Monteith” bowl by the Shanghai maker Luen Wo. This is the only example of a Monteith-style bowl I’ve seen by a Chinese Export Silver maker. It is superbly decorated with a repoussé work coastal scene with characters and a shaped finely pierced rim with swirling dragons chasing pearls.

Once again, a Monteith is such a specific object that this, too, is almost certainly a commissioned piece, although it is not unusual to find Wang Hing and Luen Wo pieces that carry additional Scottish silver hallmarks such as Hamilton & Inches in Edinburgh and Edwards and Sorleys in Glasgow; this piece simply carries the Chinese marks. Historically, as a form, Monteith-style bowls date back to the 17th century. Their scalloped rims are so designed as to allow stemmed wine cups to be suspended by the foot and chilled in iced water contained in the bowl. The name “Monteith” is believed to have come from the eccentric and rather bankrupt Scottish 7th Earl of Menteith [Monteith] who wore a cloak with a scalloped hem. This particular piece, though, is a fine example of how Chinese Export Silver makers were able to adapt an essentially European form and object and decorate it in the high Chinese style.

Tuck Chang Photo Frame

On the left we have a rather delicious Chinese Export Silver picture frame in the form of a pleated fan decorated with a high relief bamboo motif against a finely planished background made by the Shanghai maker Tuck Chang & Company. Although this seems to me to be so redolent of a very stylish a somewhat decadent Shanghai at the very beginning of the 20th century, I have to say that I’ve never seen anything similar even though the Chinese silversmiths were quite inventive when it came to photograph frames. The tripod faux bamboo stand at the back, though, is typical and seems to be a uniquely Chinese solution to a picture frame easel prop.

Wan-Pao Tot Beaker

Chinese Export Silver tot beakers are also not rare, but when I was presented with the image we see on the right, the image for the maker’s mark was something I had to research. This is how I discovered the maker Wan-Pao.

 

 

Tsingtau Wan-Pao mark

 

We see the maker’s mark above; there are no accompanying marks with Chinese characters. In my research it transpired that Tsingtau was the German Romanisation of the city name Qīngdǎo. Not only was the maker a new discovery for me, but what makes Qīngdǎo interesting is that it was a German concession renamed Tsingtau from 1898-1914. Wan-Pao is equally unusual in as much as it was making silver in the high Chinese style specifically for the German market.

The title of this article contains the word “agonies” and I’m sure this intrigues many people as to why. When a mystery item or maker presents itself, researching it is usually far from straight forward. The China Trade in general was not particularly well-documented; the Chinese themselves were historically systems-averse and documentation-averse. Much of the trade conducted between the foreign merchants and the Cohong was so convoluted and it was almost certainly not something they would have relished being documented. Private travel journals, editorial articles in China-centric magazines of the time [of which there were surprisingly quite a few] and individual ships’ manifests are the main source of information and discovery. It takes a good deal of searching. a fair amount of hair pulling and a reasonable degree of being in the right place at the right time to often solve a Chinese Export Silver mystery! It is in the mysteries that the information is usually buried awaiting discovery.

Laozi quote

GlasgowAdrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research

 

 worthpoint_w_coin_header_logo copyAdrien von Ferscht is also the Worthologist expert for Chinese Export Silver

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Adrien von Ferscht’s website is the largest online information resource for Chinese Export Silver: www.chinese-export-silver.com

His Catalogue of Chinese Export Silver 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 6-8 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. The Catalogue is available at:

http://chinese-export-silver.com/catalogue-of-makers-marks/

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Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills

To Skinner Auctioneers, Boston; Robert H Bezuijen at Marani Fine Art, Melbourne, Australia; Adam Partridge Auctioneers, UK; George Glastris, Chicago; Linda Berman, Glasgow

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the www.chinese-export-silver.com archive which is managed by Christopher Hunter at www.eleven38photography.co.uk

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worthpoint_w_coin_header_logo copyThis article also appeared on WorthPoint 

http://www.worthpoint.com/blog-entry/oddities-mysteries-sometimes-agonieschinese-export-silver

 

© 2013, Adrien von Ferscht. All rights reserved.

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