META-MUSEUM:CHINESE EXPORT SILVER HITS GOLD AT HERITAGE 讓中國出口銀器金榜題名的傳承(拍賣行)

Chinese Export Silver Hits Gold at Heritage

At the back end of August this year, the Dallas-based auction house Heritage Auctions had consulted with me regarding some items of Chinese Export Silver due to be consigned in a mixed silver sale for 5th November. They did it of their own accord, as opposed to my usual hectoring of auction houses at half-hearted attempts to catalogue Chinese Export Silver.

For the two years I have been carrying out my academic research into Chinese Export Silver, I’ve felt, at times, to be a crusader in a hostile world. Just over six months ago, WorthPoint realised the importance of this very significant silver category; significant not only in size, but also in its style and rich history. In all these respects, Chinese Export Silver is unique. It was also unique that the largest online information resource for the antique world had taken a conscious decision to re-educate the world by carrying my weekly articles – the response has been overwhelming

The next major breakthrough was when the online auction platform Auctionata came to a similar conclusion by asking me if it were feasible to create an exclusively Chinese Export Silver sale in 2014. My answer to Auctionata, as with any auction-based platform, whether it be virtual or physical, is a resounding yes, but with the proviso that the expertise is firmly in place and a true understanding of the silver, the “market” and the buyers is present. As a result, Auctionata joins WorthPoint in being the second digital presence to recognise the significance of Chinese Export Silver as a major world silver category.

I was more than pleased when Heritage Auctions approached me to consult with them on a small collection of Chinese Export Silver that had been consigned. The sale was held on November 5th and the results speak volumes; hammer values were achieved in every instance far above comparable silver from other categories.

Among the auction items was a rather splendid lidded standing cup carrying a mark of a retail silversmith we only know by the initials MLW – my research has never discovered any documentation that sheds light on the full identity of this retailer. Yet this particular cup also bore the “chopmark” of the actual silver workshop that created it, in this case identifiable as Sheng Chang who, importantly, is a “known” maker, especially by Chinese aficionados.

Chinese Export Silver standing cup by MLW/Sheng Chang circa 1890

Here is the cup; a rather deliciously ebullient confection in the high Chinese style. Having an elaborate dragon head finial atop a stepped domed lid with chased and repoussé foliate and fruit decoration surrounding the swirling high relief tail of the dragon. The main body of the cup carries a high relief, highly detailed allegorical scene of figures within a palace scene, a centered shield-shaped cartouche and flanked by a pair of naturalistic grapevine handles. The cup issues from an cornucopia carried by a female figure accompanied by a child and a faun who stand grouped on the circular base, itself decorated with bands of alternating high relief and engraved foliate and floral motifs. The cup, as can be expected, has a parcel gilded interior.

As a standing cup, it is not particularly large, standing at 35cm and weighing some 1180gm. The cup, however, achieved an astounding hammer value of $22,500 at the sale.

Chinese Export Silver makers were highly adept at creating trophy cups, doing so in their inimitable style; a sort of cross-dressed version of that Chinese and Victorian to attempt over-the-topness without going totally overboard.

Chinese Export Silver MLW Sheng Chang Standing Cup detailing

Bidding was obviously brisk. Having my fingers almost constantly on the pulse of the world that is Chinese Export Silver, I had been aware for several weeks of ongoing dialogues about this item on Chinese language online forums for Chinese Export Silver. Part of that discussion was focused on the fact this came from a bench in the Sheng Chang silver workshop. The fact the cup happened also to be overtly in the high Chinese style certainly helped it hammer down for a such highly satisfying result; Chinese buyers generally prefer the later high Chinese style rather than the pure Georgian style of earlier items.

Chinese Export Silver Guang Ji tea set

Although the standing cup was by far the star of the show, other items of Chinese Export Silver all performed well. This circa 1900 three piece tea set by the Hong Kong maker Guang Ji achieved $8250.00 while a Henri Soufflot French coffee service of the same date, a comparable piece in terms of silver work and silver weight,CHINESE EXPORT SILVER Tuck Chang Coffee Pot achieved a hammer of just under $1000 in the same sale.

A Chinese Export Silver circa 1900 baluster coffee pot by the Shanghai retail silversmith Tuck Chang was sold for $5312.00, again having a classical Chinese allegorical scene as the decorative motif, set off by the faux bamboo loop handle and bamboo culme finial. For an end of the 19th century pot weighing under 500gm to achieve this figure is no mean feat, but indicative of how buoyant this silver category is against its contemporaries.

The lidded conserve pot, also by Tuck Chang and obviously from the same original household as the coffee pot given the identical monogramming, achieved $1625.00. At just over five inches tall, again a significant value to achieve.

Chinese Export Silver Tuck Chang Conserve Pot

We are only just beginning to to grips with the size this silver category probably was. In the 1960‘s it had been identified that less than forty “makers” were known of and an inconsequential amount of silver overall existed. We now know this was vastly under-estimated and we now are fully aware that more than half of the silver ever exported from China went to countries other than the United States.

My own research, after almost two years, has now fully identified just over 200 “makers”. I use inverted commas knowingly because I have emphasised that many of the marks we find on Chinese Export Silver, in particular those that appear in English, are marks of retail silversmiths and not the actual silver workshop. The hierarchy of the system in China, if we can call it a system, was very different to anything in the West. There was also no assay system in China, so even referring to marks as “hallmarks” is not particularly appropriate.

I should also quickly add that although 200 makers are now identified, the reality is that probably several thousand silver workshops existed across China in the 150 years or so of Chinese Export Silver. This, too, should indicate the vastness of the size this silver category has, also implying there’s a vast amount of this silver “out there” waiting to be identified.

Luen Wo Compote

Once again, in the high Chinese decorative style, this circa 1890 compote by Shanghai retail silversmith Luen Wo achieved $5625.00. Just over 7 inches high and weighing just over 600gm, for a late 19th century piece this is remarkable.

Interestingly, an S. Kirk & Son silver repoussé ginger jar sold at the Kirk & Son Silver Ginger Jarsame sale for $1375.00. It was decorated in the Chinese style. I can say with my hand firmly on my heart that had this been a tea caddy by Luen Wo, for instance, and in the same style it would have achieved a figure comparable to the compote. Such is the power of Chinese Export Silver, but it is not a power that can be taken for granted; it will only happen if there is a clear demonstration on the part of the auction house and the seller that they understand what it is they are offering for sale.

While I am obviously pleased that my original article was highlighting a general deficiency in most Western auction houses to recognise that Chinese Export Silver is not only a significant world silver category, but one that deserves optimum demonstration that the auction house offering items for sale amply shows it has sufficient knowledge to be doing so. Apart from the Ralph Chait Galleries in New York, who historically have always had a specialised connection with Chinese Export Silver, Heritage Auctions is the first major American auction house to get to the nub of the matter by understanding that Chinese Export Silver requires a focused and specialised expertise – not only to sell it, but to accept it as a consignment in the first place and do so with the confidence it serve both the seller and the buyer well.

Auction houses and online sources of information have to understand that we live in a different age where buyers and seekers of information are incredibly techno-savvy. Concise, accurate and detailed information will be found thanks to search engines. This has become the silent but powerful marketing tool of out times, aided and abetted by hard-hitting, skillfully crafted SEO optimisation. The internet is a wonderful invention but it is not a box of magical tricks; it needs to be stimulated and optimised by clever use of the toolbox that comes with it. The art of cataloguing and the traditional wording that has been used in “catalogue speak” needs to be carefully reviewed so that whatever an individual catalogue entry is, it then has to have total continuity into SEO and TAG optimisation which also includes coordinating titles of images. My work brings me, by default, in contact with many auction houses; few have fully grasped the full power the internet offers. My own observation is there’s a long way to go before there’s joined up writing between the auction house experts, the cataloguers and the IT experts. As with the internet, it should be one single wavelength; cataloguers and specialists now have to work hand-in-hand with IT experts. This actually is a major game-change for auction houses; to function optimally for the reputation of the house and to optimally serve both buyer and consignee, the resident specialist, the cataloguer and the IT expert need to be fully synchronised.

Chinese Export Silver is virtually always in varying degrees of high quality – I have yet to see a mediocre piece of Chinese Export Silver.  Affording it respect by full and adequate identification is of paramount importance. We do this for high quality British, American and European silver and we should be aware that Chinese buyers are also acquiring this silver as well as “repatriating” silver that originated in China. Why, then, should these buyers and sellers feel that equal care and effort is not being given to Chinese Export Silver? In a way, to adopt such an apathetic approach is giving an advantage to the prospective buyers; equally, it is doing an injustice to the consignees. Surely this is not in the best interest of all concerned – the buyers, the consignees and, dare I say it, the auction houses themselves.

Heritage Auctions, and Auctionata have shown great initiative. WorthPoint are the trailblazers. Hopefully this is just the beginning of a new awareness of the unique silver category and they will not remain isolated pioneers

My research continues; it’s taken two years to get to this point and there’s not only a lot yet to discover, but there’s a long way yet to go until Chinese Export Silver achieves full parity with its British, American and European cousins. It’s getting there, though.

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Adrien von Ferscht is the only academic carrying out in-depth research into Chinese Export Silver in the context of The China Trade and the 1200 year history of Chinese silver making. He is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research, he is the Expert for Chinese Export Silver for Auctionata and now consults for Heritage Auctions for this unique silver category and he is a Worthologist at WorthPoint.

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Thanks to Danny Cheng for his translation skills. Acknowledgments to Heritage Auctions, Dallas; WorthPoint, Atlanta; Auctionata, Berlin, London, New York

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The Collectors' Guide to Chinese Export Silver 1785-1940 including A Complete Catalogue of Makers' Marks

© 2013, Adrien von Ferscht. All rights reserved.

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