META-MUSEUM: Pearl River Meets East River Over a Chinese Export Silver Box! 珠江在一個中國出口銀盒上遇到了紐約的東河!

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Pearl River Meets East River Over a Chinese Export Silver Box! 珠江在一個中國出口銀盒上遇到了紐約的東河!

For a nation that had been almost totally introspective to the point of being hermetically sealed off for hundreds of years, it never ceases to amaze me how inextricably linked the phenomenon that is Chinese Export Silver is to America, in particular the Eastern Seaboard. True, the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 opened up trade with the West and The China Trade era was born, but beyond the relatively confined designated foreign areas of Canton and other treaty ports, Westerners could not and did not infiltrate China proper. Yet anyone viewing the Pearl River flowing past Old Canton and Shameen Island they would not have seen much river, for hundreds of cargoes boats and ships vied for the chance to berth in order to unload and load precious cargoes.

The foreigners in Canton, merchants included, were immersed in a dense, old Chinese city, of which they formed but a relatively small contingent. Despite the restrictions, they were still part of Chinese commercial life. From their ‘factories’, they could peer into a vast, wealthy continent whose riches made all the difficulties worthwhile. They faced risks of fire, disease, and social unrest along with their Chinese counterparts. They pressed for greater access to the interior of China, but for nearly 150 years could not move out of their profitable walled ghetto. They suffered because the rewards were vast beyond their wildest dreams. If they survived, they went back to Boston wealthy men.

The British and American merchants were the dominant foreign traders; the former had slightly different agendas than the latter, who in the main consisted of entrepreneurial established Massachusetts Bay merchant families. It was these very men who quickly understood the lie of the land and that silver in Canton was of high quality, the workmanship of equally high quality but the cost was but a fraction of that in Boston or New York. And so it was that within 20 years of the signing of the treaty, high quality silver items were flowing back to Boston on clippers and supercargoes from the silvermakers in Canton. Much of that silver during this early period of what was to be 150 years of Chinese Export Silver was bespoke special commissions.

Wang Hing Delmonico Box 1

Among these commissions, in about 1870 an exquisite silver box was to make its way from Canton eight thousand miles to New York City; a journey that ends with two icons of the East and the West finally crossing paths in 19th century New York City

Here is that very box. Set with turquoise cabochon stones, the box is both constructed of and decorated in an intricate reticulated network of high relief swirling dragons amidst clouds. At the centre of the lid sits a shield-shaped cartouche engraved with three initials CCD. On the base of the box sit the marks of the maker in Canton, completing the mystery. For the maker is Wang Hing, probably the most celebrated in the West of all Chinese Export Silver makers; CCD stands for Charles Constant Delmonico – great nephew of one of the founding brothers of the iconic Delmonico’s restaurant in New York. Despite a whole plethora of silver items from Wang Hing inhabiting the world today, we know very little of the face behind the name other than his name was almost certainly not Wang Hing. We do know that whoever was in command must have been a quality control freak, so constant is the level of expertise displayed. On the other side of the coin, we know almost everything about Delmonico’s rise to stardom.

Wang Hing Delmonico Box 2

Born in 1840, by the age of just 22 Charles Delmonico was managing the luxurious 14th Street Delmonico’s where no lady was permitted to dine at Delmonico’s without a male escort and men and women could not close the door while eating in a private room. Charles was an extremely hard-working and capable businessman who drove Delmonico’s from strength to strength and further uptown, opening the 5th Avenue and 26th Street restaurant in 1876 where Lobster a la Newberg and Eggs Benedict were invented and Manhattan Clam Chowder first came into the world.

Charles’s love of luxury was legendary as his patronage of Tiffany & Co equally so. The Wang Hing box is part of a Delmonico family collection of superb items that are known to have been supplied by Tiffany’s, but we sadly have no documentary evidence the Wang Hing piece had the same provenance. Equally, it is believed by many that for a period of about 20 years, Wang Hing was a regular supplier to the New York store*.

Delmonico 15 cent Bill

 

During the Civil War, Delmonico’s Restaurant issued its own private issue currency. One of its notes is shown above. The note is dated July 1862.  It shows the restaurant at No. 2 South William Street (called the “Citadel”), but the note does not bear the name of the restaurant.  Instead, the note bears the name “C. Delmonico.” The currency was used then in the same way that currency is used today, with shoppers being able to use the Delmonico script to pay for their purchases, not just at Delmonico’s Restaurant, but at any business in New York and, indeed the United States.  Such was the power of the Delmonico name and reputation. A 15 cent Delmonico’s note today is worth circa $250.

Wang Hing’s Delmonico box was created towards the end of a period of several hundred years history and tradition of intricate Chinese silverwork set with precious and semi precious stones.

Cutshing Chempleve Box

Circa 1830, this is a Chinese filigree silver gilt basket made by the Canton silversmith Cutshing. Probably intended for gloves or other items of a lady’s toilet, it is oval with six feet mounted a decorative lower edge.The lid has a Fou Shou finial with floral sprigs surrounding it and the basket is lined with the finest satin silk and found it’s way to the already large collection of Chinese silver objects Catherine the Great had cherished in her days at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The intricacy which Chinese silvermakers had mastered appealed to Catherine’s love of all things rococo; she was, after all, what we would consider a totally over-the-top woman. One also gets an impression from pictures and newspaper comments of the time that Charles Delmonico had the same bent; a showman as only New York knows how to produce and there’s nothing more that a Chinese Export Silver maker likes – the chance to express his skills in silver. This Cutshing basket is attributed to have been part of Empress Alexandra’s toilet, she also being a lady not of simple needs.

Delmonico’s was a magnet to the rich and famous from all over the world, including luminaries such as Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Lily Langtry, the Prince of Wales [later Edward VII] and Napoleon III. Had Catherine the Great been alive, she’d have no doubt been there!

Chinese Export Silver makers of the 18th and 19th centuries can be likened to the celebrity architects of the period. Both craved the next wealthy flamboyant client so that had the chance to work their skills fully to create lasting edifices to their respective crafts. Unlike the architects, however, it is highly doubtful any of the master silversmiths ever saw the light of day, let alone met a client or their agent. The complex hierarchy of a Chinese Export Silver company was somewhat pyramidical, with the retailer being the frontman – the showman who not only built the business on charming the “right” people, but he also had to have a profound knowledge and understand of quality, how to produce it, who to have make it and them be responsible for the finished item being his vision being made carnate. The retailer was the ringmaster, the finished object would have been exquisite and the never to be seen workshop was nothing more than a sweatshop. This was the accepted way. The workshops of Wang Hing & Co would not have been in the back or upstairs such as at Carl Fabergé or at a top French couturier. The workshops were almost an irrelevancy as long as it produced. Such was the established and accepted hierarchy. So when we refer to an item of Wang Hing, we are acknowledging a degree of quality synonymous with the name Wang Hing and we are subconsciously acknowledging that someone in the pyramid controlled the artisan makers who delivered that quality.

Christies Box

Circa 1830, this is a Chinese filigree silver gilt basket made by the Canton silversmith Cutshing. Probably intended for gloves or other items of a lady’s toilet, it is oval with six feet mounted a decorative lower edge.The lid has a Fou Shou finial with floral sprigs surrounding it and the basket is lined with the finest satin silk and found it’s way to the already large collection of Chinese silver objects Catherine the Great had cherished in her days at the Winter Palace in St Petersburg. The intricacy which Chinese silvermakers had mastered appealed to Catherine’s love of all things rococo; she was, after all, what we would consider a totally over-the-top woman. One also gets an impression from pictures and newspaper comments of the time that Charles Delmonico had the same bent; a showman as only New York knows how to produce and there’s nothing more that a Chinese Export Silver maker likes – the chance to express his skills in silver. This Cutshing basket is attributed to have been part of Empress Alexandra’s toilet, she also being a lady not of simple needs.

Delmonico’s was a magnet to the rich and famous from all over the world, including luminaries such as Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Lily Langtry, the Prince of Wales [later Edward VII] and Napoleon III. Had Catherine the Great been alive, she’d have no doubt been there!

Chinese Export Silver makers of the 18th and 19th centuries can be likened to the celebrity architects of the period. Both craved the next wealthy flamboyant client so that had the chance to work their skills fully to create lasting edifices to their respective crafts. Unlike the architects, however, it is highly doubtful any of the master silversmiths ever saw the light of day, let alone met a client or their agent. The complex hierarchy of a Chinese Export Silver company was somewhat pyramidical, with the retailer being the frontman – the showman who not only built the business on charming the “right” people, but he also had to have a profound knowledge and understand of quality, how to produce it, who to have make it and them be responsible for the finished item being his vision being made carnate. The retailer was the ringmaster, the finished object would have been exquisite and the never to be seen workshop was nothing more than a sweatshop. This was the accepted way. The workshops of Wang Hing & Co would not have been in the back or upstairs such as at Carl Fabergé or at a top French couturier. The workshops were almost an irrelevancy as long as it produced. Such was the established and accepted hierarchy. So when we refer to an item of Wang Hing, we are acknowledging a degree of quality synonymous with the name Wang Hing and we are subconsciously acknowledging that someone in the pyramid controlled the artisan makers who delivered that quality.

Wang Hing small box

The Delmonico box bearing Wang Hing’s makers’ marks is exquisite, has a complex history attached to it and most probably has an equally complex series of manufacturing processes that started life in a crowded hot workshop in Canton and arrived in all its glory into one of the most famous pair of hands in New York; halfway across the world and across two very different cultures that somehow understood each other.

It still seems ironic that these beautiful examples of silver could find their way to the Winter Palace and Fifth Avenue from a dark alley in Old Canton.

At least half of the Chinese Export Silver that exists in the world is still in the USA thanks to the Massachusetts Bay merchants. While it is impossible to know exactly how much, the signs over the past two years indicate it is substantial, yet awareness of this silver category is relatively low. It doesn’t always look Chinese, in fact some of the best examples could easily be English Georgian or American silver of the same period. It is, however, not straight forward to identify as to which maker, date or the city. I have just completed the 3rd edition catalogue of Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks which will be available soon. It is the largest compilation of marks ever produced for this silver category – almost 200 makers. While this makes identification simpler, it can never make it simple. Like many collectables, it takes time and handling to know the category. This is just as much the case with Chinese ceramics as it is with Chinese Export Silver.

As Confucius said: I am not one who was born in the possession of knowledge; I am one who is fond of antiquity, and earnest in seeking it there”.

*In December 2013, the archive department at Tiffany & Co in New York have agreed to begin a joint research project with me to determine what the relationship was between Tiffany and Wang Hing. The findings, including any discovered documentation, will be a publicly available paper that I shall be compilingGrey bar

GlasgowAdrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research – Researching The History of Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940 Within the Context of 1200 Years of Chinese Silvermaking

 worthpoint_w_coin_header_logo copy Adrien von Ferscht is 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: Charles Sweigart at Search Ends Here Antiques, Reading, PA; Christie’s, New York; The Hermitage, Amsterdam; The State Hermitage Museum, St Petersburg

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

© 2013, Adrien von Ferscht. All rights reserved.

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