The definitive global information hub for Chinese Export Silver | 全球权威的信息枢纽,为中国进出口银 | 全球權威的信息樞紐,為中國進出口銀 ACCESSED BY OVER 20,000 PEOPLE WORLDWIDE EVERY WEEK

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Adrien von Ferscht

It was H.A. Crosby Forbes who probably first made the world aware of the existence of Chinese Export Silver by publishing a catalogue for an exhibition of Chinese silver taken mainly from the Forbes Collection at the then China Trade Museum outside Boston in the US.

It is virtually impossible to know how much Chinese Export Silver made its way outside of China. In 1966, when the first exhibition by the China Trade Museum in America was staged, fewer than 200 pieces had actually been identified. In 1984, when the second exhibition was staged, some 2000 pieces were considered to exist. Although today we still cannot put an accurate estimate on the amount of Chinese Export Silver pieces that survive, we are aware that it is one of the largest and most significant groups of regional world silver known, probably numbering in the tens of thousands, if not more.

The work Crosby Forbes published almost 40 years ago, co-written with John Devereux Kernan and Ruth S. Wilkins, has ever since been adopted as the “holy grail” reference for all things relating to Chinese Export Silver, including makers’ marks and details of where they worked and the period within which they operated. Kernan subsequently compiled and wrote the limited edition catalogue for The Chait Collection of Chinese Export Silver in 1985. Both were admirable and informative bodies of work, but they were based upon information that was available at the time of writing. Both also contain a significant amount of assumptions that can now either be proven unfounded, corrected or adjusted.  Far more information has since become available and we are now aware of an extraordinary amount of Chinese Export Silver being “out there” including important collections in museums around the world. One thing is certain though, with the publishing of the first body of works, an awareness was established of the existence of Chinese Export Silver and a steep learning curve began.

The original Crosby Forbes work was created under the aegis of the Museum of the American China Trade; a museum that Dr Crosby Forbes created in 1964 in what was essentially the ancestral home that was built by his shipping merchant antecedents who were pioneers of the China Trade. As the original name of the museum might suggest, the work was also carried out as an American-centric project; a slant which is totally understandable given his own family ties to the China Trade and to the Forbes, Russell and Perkins merchant families – all major stakeholders in Canton in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Although Dr Crosby Forbes spent over two decades as curator at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, none of his research and writing about Chinese Export Silver and work he carried out with Kernan and Wilkins was done within a strict academic framework.  The fact that they all chose to exclude silver that was connected with the British trade in China at the time is slightly perplexing since British trade with China was established before the Boston merchant families began their own connections with China and was also on a larger scale given the existing virtual monopoly of the British East India Company. So although vast quantities of silverwares did make their way to America from Canton and other treaty ports in China, equally vast quantities were sent to Great Britain and, importantly, to its colonies in Canada, Australia, South Africa and to its South East Asian colonies and protectorates. We should not forget that the very catalyst that created the China Trade, the Treaty of Nanking, was between the Emperor of China and Queen Victoria – the Chinese Empire and the British Empire as they then were.

Chinese Export Silver should be regarded as a definitive period of silver manufacturing and although it may appear as somewhat of a contradiction of the term “Chinese Export Silver”, it should be used as an umbrella term under which all silver produced in China during this period sits. Chinese Export Silver as a phenomenon influenced in varying degrees all Chinese silver, whether or not it was destined for export or made for the home market. Silver that may have been made ostensibly for the “home market” could easily have found its way outside of China, especially given the significant foreign resident communities in many of the treaty ports.

Without Crosby Forbes’ works, my own research would probably never have happened, but as life has moved on, so has availability of and access to information. It was the realisation not only of the size of Chinese Export Silver as a silver category, but the importance of it as masterfully created works of art and the incredibly rich and convoluted history that is attached to it that caused the University of Glasgow to allow me to carry out the research. My work, therefore, has never been about making a point of correcting Crosby Forbes, Kernan or Wilkins. It has always been about embracing it and moving it forward into the world today, using it as a nucleus to sometimes reshape but more often to build upon. Kernan himself acknowledged the fact that others would further the field of research.

Given the Chinese were always systems and documentation averse, identifying makers is challenging to say the least. This is obviously exacerbated by the language and cultural barriers one has to be prepared to overcome, which in turn is challenged by the Chinese love of “artistic license” and, I suspect, sense of humour.

As to the steep learning curve, my own research continues and I am feeling that it has probably reached the point where much of the surface delving is coming to a natural end. It doesn’t end there, though; the latest edition of my catalogue of makers marks has details of almost 200 makers, mistakes will still be made and errors will still be discovered further down the line; such is the nature of learning curves. What I do feel, though, is a greater understanding of Chinese Export Silver developing that bodes well, for it too will grow and eventually place Chinese Export Silver where it rightly belong as a significant and important silver category. The curve still has a way to climb yet and my research is entering a new phase, one where I have no doubt that the real meat on the bone is yet to be discovered.

My research has also caused me to believe quite strongly that because of the focus historically having been mainly on the Canton, ShangHai and Hong Kong makers, those makers in other regional cities and towns have been greatly overlooked; a fact that has been our loss as well as a loss to their own individual reputations. Not all the silversmiths found themselves in Canton, ShangHai or Hong Kong, some of the finest stayed in Jiujang and Tientsin, in fact some of the more obscure makers who were not mentioned by Crosby Forbes were in ShangHai; the so-called “Nine Factories” or the “ShangHai Alliance”, many of whom were operating back in the 18th century and some even earlier. A 17th century coffee pot sits proudly in Queen Victoria’s Osborne House on the Isle of Wight in the UK and is now part of the Royal Collection. This pot was almost certainly made by one of the old established ShangHai makers. Some really superb makers manufactured in relatively obscure places such as Chengdu. Peking makers were comparatively few but gradually we are becoming aware of more makers who were based there. The exclusion of many of these makers is probably due in part to the America-centric nature of Crosby Forbes’ and Kernan’s works. I also believe more of the work from these makers probably came to Great Britain than might have gone to America; we know that some of these makers feature in major European collections of Chinese Export Silver including the Royal Collection in the UK.

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 Great Britain and America, in particular its Eastern Seaboard. It is true, the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 opened up trade with the West and The China Trade era came into its own, 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 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 in highly significant quantities. Much of that silver during this early period of what was to be 150 years of Chinese Export Silver was probably bespoke special commissions rather than speculative.

The highly complex structure of the Chinese Export Silver trade as an integral part of the China Trade in general is convoluted and totally alien to silver manufacturing and trading structures prevalent in the West at that time. This, in turn, makes understanding Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks difficult which in turn is exacerbated by the absence of any regulation or system. This is explained in further detail as the introductory section of The Makers’ Marks section of this catalogue.

Chinese Export Silver did not happen overnight; it is important to recognise this. China had already a 1200 year history of silver making. China also had a unique love affair with silver, basing its entire monetary system and economy on it. However, world trade with China in the 18th and 19th centuries and the eventual British plot [the “Opium Wars”] to counteract the vicious trade imbalance trading with China caused, were the catalysts for an amazing outpouring of high quality silver items we now know as Chinese Export Silver.

No other important silver category has been created as a direct result of political history and national protectionism.

China also has a long history of an extraordinary ability to master craft skills from other cultures and to convert those skills into creating sophisticated items; a quite remarkable aptitude to have a deep-rooted understanding of raw materials that seems to come naturally. It is also this osmotic ability that created what we now recognise as the Chinese Style. Modern day China is a testament to this by mastering materials and technologies it hasn’t hitherto historically had. It is almost as if the Chinese have an extra gene the rest of the world lacks. What we now know as the China Style is, in reality, an evolved, controlled assimilation from cultures outside of China engendered by the Silk Route.

The vast majority of these export silver pieces were created between 1785 and 1940 and in both Crosby Forbes’ and Kernan’s works, it was apportioned to three distinct periods of manufacture. This is perfectly logical, but since the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 served as the catalyst to allow Chinese Export Silver to evolve into a definitive phenomenon and Chinese silvermaking existed prior to this, I believe it would be far more accurate to add an additional period of 1675-1785. In the 17th and early 18th centuries Chinese silversmiths were already creating quite extraordinary pieces that had been either commissioned by royal households across Europe or items were being commissioned to be presented to them by wealthy families and politicians. The Royal Collection in the UK and the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg contain some highly important pieces made by Chinese master silversmiths in the late 17th and 18th centuries. I have chosen to call the initial period as “The Formative China Trade Period”; a significant Chinese export trade certainly existed prior to the Treaty of Nanking, but 1842 took the brakes off since the centuries of China being a closed introvert nation ceased. Foreign merchants, in particular the British and Americans, not only were allowed to have a Chinese mainland base, but they formed lucrative partnerships with the Chinese Hong merchants; partnerships that were extremely complex and driven by the freneticism on the ground in China and an insatiable greed.

These four categories also act as useful sub-conscious filing system, since each period contains silver with distinctive attributes:

1685-1785 “The Formative China Trade Period”

1785-1840 “The Early China Trade Period”

1840-1880 “The Late China Trade Period”

1880-1940 “The Post China Trade Period”

The art of silversmithing has a 2000 year history in China; 1200 years sees the production of highly sophisticated wares that draw influences from empires and cultures that existed along the Silk Route. Until the latter part of the 17th century, for several hundred years, the work was mainly destined for the Imperial Court and upper echelons of society, while more latterly [18th century], almost exclusively for European royalty and aristocratic families as well as Far Eastern potentates and Indian maharajahs.

With the escalation of trading with China by the West as a result of an ever-growing need for luxury items only China could provide, it was the Imperial insistence on the use of silver Trade Dollars as means of payment that created even more vast reserves of silver for the Chinese treasury than had already been amassed.

Until around 1750, China’s demand for silver served as the engine for world trade! In 1793, China’s silver reserve was equivalent in today’s values of £29.5 billion.

Probably unlike any other nation in history, silver was highly prized by the succession of Chinese dynasties. Silver was the bedrock of almost 1200 years of trade with the outside world; a volume of trade that reached phenomenal levels, even by today’s standards. A trade that made previously sleepy European countries prosperous – Spain, for example. At the time, it caused some to verge on bankruptcy as a result of the imbalance of trade it created and cities to be built where cities didn’t previously exist – Lima in Peru, for example.

The level of craftsmanship that produced Chinese Export Silver was not something that occurred overnight. The craftsmanship was as deeply embedded as silver was in the psyche of the Chinese. It was a highly sophisticated system of small workshops that would be akin to miniature production lines that were operated by highly skilled artisans who each shared a part in the finished item. The skills were more often than not passed down from generation to generation through families.

Chinese Export Silver was a product of the last three centuries. The preceding 17th and early 18th centuries saw Chinese silversmiths creating exceptional pieces for royal households and aristocracy throughout Europe and India and occasionally to wealthy American merchant families. The Tang and Sung dynasties saw equally extraordinary silver being created, mainly for the Imperial court. The Ming dynasty saw an expansion in trade with Europe and Japan that was totally fuelled by silver, seeing levels reached that were extraordinary then, as they would be now.

The amount of silver pouring into the Ming treasury was in the region of $190 billion in today’s values. The Ming dynasty was responsible for over 30% of the entire world’s GDP.

While China, under the Ming dynasty, was virtually inundated with silver, we see little evidence of important silver objects being produced.

Silver, highly skilled artisans and almost fortress-like protectionism remained a constant until the Cultural Revolution. Apart from silver, there are so many parallels in the powerhouse we know as China today. It can only be a question of time before fine Chinese silver begins to flow again. China is already fast becoming a centre for diamond polishing, being able to produce world-class diamonds for a sixth of the price in Tel Aviv and almost a tenth of the price in Antwerp. By 2015 China is forecast to be the world leader in polished diamond production. Diamonds are a material the Chinese haven’t historically been associated with, neither did they have the skills to polish them to world-class standards.

In the 19th century, it was the high quality and relatively low price that caused Chinese Export Silver to become so sought after. History always repeats itself in China; yet another constant! China’s many centuries love affair of silver culminated in the extraordinary period we now know as Chinese Export Silver. The work was constantly astounding to look at and constantly astounding in quality. It was almost like the last roaring flames from the dragon’s mouth that were finally abruptly extinguished in the late 1930’s and the coming to power of the Communist Party of China. For 60 years the Communist government forbade private ownership of precious metals. The ban has now been lifted and investment in silver is now encouraged.

Sixty years on we now see the flames rekindled. Silver was the sleeping princess for all those years and it has suddenly woken with China’s focus, yet again, on silver. But it’s a focus with a huge difference; China’s dominance in the high-tech manufacturing industries requires vast amounts of silver. China is the world’s largest buyer of silver, yet again. While its usage is purely industrial, one can only hope the revived need for silver will, at some stage, breathe life back into silversmithing skills and fine silver objects will yet again appear and astound us. If China can produce world-class polished diamonds and dominate the market with skills that were never historically Chinese, it can produce world-class silver objects again using skills it possessed for over a thousand years.

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What is probably the most revealing characteristic of Chinese Export silver pieces is its weight, most pieces being as much as one third heavier than comparable Western pieces. This is mainly due to the discrepancies between the vast amount of silver in China compared to Western trading countries; quantities were so vast that unlike Western silvermaking cultures, weight was almost an irrelevancy.

From the mid-17th century, more than 9 billion Troy ounces, or 290 thousand tonnes, of silver was absorbed by China from European countries in exchange for Chinese goods!

Early Chinese Export Silver almost exclusively took the form of copies of British or American classical Georgian styles. This gradually evolved into incorporating overtly Chinese motifs to these classic forms. The evolving process never stopped and by the latter part of the 19th century, the style had evolved into an extravaganza of Chinese motifs that, in the true high Victorian manner, completely covered silver items to the point where plain polished surfaces were virtually banished or thought unthinkable. By the time the 20th century dawned, Arts and Crafts, Art Nouveau and the later Art Deco styles were incorporated into items, in particular pieces manufactured in ShangHai and Hong Kong where substantial international communities had become indigenous and an equally substantial number of affluent Chinese had adopted Western lifestyles.

There are, however, “grey areas” of both style and places of manufacturing that are associated with Chinese Export Silver inasmuch as Chinese silversmiths were responsible for them. Although technically a silver category in its own right and can equally as technically be referred to as being “Chinese”, there are silversmiths who, confusingly for us, straddle both categories. It’s a complicated silver category in as much as it also has three distinct manufacturing periods over the 100 years it was produced [1835-1935], with some of the silversmiths who were based in China proper as well as in the Straits were effectively creating “export Silver” – some destined exclusively for the Straits and some for export to the West. Straits Chinese Silver never attempted to ape Western styles; it was always Chinese and often more likely to be decorated with motifs that were Straits-relevant and on forms and styles that were definitively Straits in cultural origin – what we might classify loosely as Peranakan. Straits Chinese Silver often carries Chinese chopmarks and it because of this that items often appear in Western auction houses or on sellers’ websites classified incorrectly as Chinese Export Silver.

Just as it is not straightforward to define what is Straits Chinese Silver, it is not plain-sailing to define “Straits Chinese”. The British Straits Settlements consisted of Penang, Malacca and Singapore, with Labuan being added in 1906. Macau was a Portugese colony. Formosa [now called Taiwan] was a Dutch colony. Customs, rituals, cultures, religious beliefs and decorative motifs varied across the regions, often finding themselves intermixed, yet often incorporated into decorative motifs

It is mainly due to the ascendant buoyancy of values of Chinese Export Silver as an antique silver category that it is often seen by sellers as a bandwagon to climb aboard and take a ride upon. I have even seen 19th century English silver decorated in the Chinese style described as “Chinese Export Silver”! Silver and silver making, as with any creative art, should command respect; it is not and can never be a bandwagon.

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One comment on “The definitive global information hub for Chinese Export Silver | 全球权威的信息枢纽,为中国进出口银 | 全球權威的信息樞紐,為中國進出口銀 ACCESSED BY OVER 20,000 PEOPLE WORLDWIDE EVERY WEEK

  1. Adrien von Ferscht, THE expert in the field of Chinese Export Silver, never ceases to educate and amaze with his knowledge and continuing research into China’s enormous silver trade. Sit back and relax with some green tea and read about one of the most fascinating areas of silver history.

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