META-MUSEUM: CHINESE EXPORT SILVER – The East-West Divide 中國出口銀器:東西方的分裂
Well into his third year of research, Adrien von Ferscht has always maintained a deep appreciation of the neo-classical Chinese Export Silver – a product of the late 18th/early 19th centuries. As his research has progressed, he has become increasingly aware of the trend of the majority of Chinese collectors and buyers to shun these pieces in favour of the later high-Chinese style items or the silver gilt filigree pieces that immediately preceded. This has prompted him to write the following article in order to highlight how the neo-classical pieces are superb in their own right and are comparable to the very finest contemporary silversmiths in America, Britain and the rest of Europe, that they are often of museum quality and can command and sustain values far in excess – and rightly so, he thinks.
He also argues that fiscal values of antique silver do have a place in the appreciation of art and in the history of art, his argument being that high values can actually increase awareness and appreciation and, in doing so, often preserve the silver from completely disappearing; patrons have always historically had a place in the production of art in all its forms, so why not in owning and preserving it!
Von Ferscht believes fervently the ability to have made these neo-classical items with such skill and artistry is just as much a part of Chinese cultural history as the more overtly traditional Chinese pieces. He also believes these pieces should be celebrated by Chinese collectors, rather than overlooked – they are testament to the extraordinary skill of 18th & 19th century Chinese silversmiths
Chinese Export Silver is without doubt the most complex world antique silver category; apart from silver from antiquity, it also has the longest continuous manufacturing period – 155 years.
Its complexity is derived from the fact it is the only silver category to have existed as a direct result of world politics and national protectionism. It is probably one of the only significant silver categories where the lack of any assay system and recording of workshops and their production have made research extremely difficult. That said, almost 300 makers have now been identified, yet thousands still remain to be researched, in fact it is probably impossible to ever estimate how many silversmiths were operating in China during this period.
Since the phenomenon we know as the China Trade was the real catalyst that brought this silver into being, it has always been taken for granted that it was made specifically for export. To assume this would imply a clear distinction between silver made for the export market and silver made for the home Chinese market. It’s a wrong assumption to make; the same workshops were making silver for both the overseas and home markets; the same retail silversmiths were selling to Chinese as well as foreign merchants, sea captains and their crews. What is true is that early Chinese Export Silver pieces were predominantly faithful copies of the British, American and European neo-classical styles made for those markets, but this was relatively short-lived and it quickly gave way to a gradual transition of Chinese decorative motifs in European forms. This evolved even further into a busy high Chinese style that suited the high Victorian era it found itself in as well as being in tune with the rising resurgence of a more modern take on the Chinoiserie style in Europe and America.
Having researched Chinese Export Silver for over three years now, I am convinced it is far more correct to regard it as a manufacturing period that encapsulates all silver created in China between 1785-1940. My research has also revealed that it is virtually impossible to understand Chinese Export Silver without knowing the 1200 year history of Chinese silver making that preceded it – it was never a silver category that came into being suddenly from nowhere; it was simply the silver of the circumstances of the times.
As a definitive silver category, we are only just beginning to see it as a regular phenomenon in auction houses around the world. While it is no longer a curiosity, there is a dichotomy of how it is perceived; in the West it is mainly seen as interesting and unusual silver of quality that a minority of Western collectors seek, while in China it is seen as silver representing lost heritage and its acquisition is very much linked to the rapidly rising affluent middle class in China.
Earlier this year, Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auction in the UK took the bold step of deciding the time was right to specialise in Chinese Export Silver by appointing me as a consultant. This was an equally bold step for me, for apart from brief forays into the commercial world, I tended to stay in the relatively safe world of academia, but having taken the step I now find I have a better understanding of the actual silver; the sometimes quite pronounced preferences of different buying sectors adds a whole new dimension. For Dreweatts, it places them in a totally unique position; they are the only auction house in the world able to offer in-house expertise for Chinese Export Silver. Being active in the commercial world has made me aware of some of the extraordinary amount of silver that is either wrongly attributed to Chinese Export Silver or incorrectly attributed to being 19th or early 20th century when it is clearly of post-1949 manufacture. One is constantly reminded of the fact that Chinese Export Silver [or in fact any popular silver category] is not a convenient band-wagon to take a ride on simply because it is a silver category clearly in demand.
Chinese collectors of Chinese Export Silver are extremely savvy, being very quality-conscious and reasonably knowledgable of the workshop and retail silversmith marks. The majority of Western auction houses are sadly on a lower knowledge plateau; one which often tends to regard the very term “Chinese Export Silver” as a bandwagon that is useful to take a ride on and upon which any silver item that vaguely looks “Chinese” finds itself loaded on to. Silver marks are often referred to as either “hallmarks” or “character marks” and given more and more Chinese buyers are following auctions, such a reference is pretty pointless. Antique Japanese, Siamese and Straits silver disturbingly find themselves reclassified as Chinese and even when a mark is correctly identified, little will be known of the name and reputation behind the mark.
The differences between West versus East in the context of Chinese Export Silver are as manifold and complex as the silver itself. Much of the early “Georgian” style pieces are considered museum quality and are highly sought after by Western collectors and museums; an opinion that is currently not particularly shared by Chinese connoisseurs, while the importance of Chinese Export Silver within the rich cultural history of China as a whole is not fully realised either. This is in so many ways regrettable since it is an admirable reflection of the extremely high quality of workmanship of the Chinese silversmiths of the late 18th and early 19th century, given this silver had absolutely no connection with the culture and history of China, yet the end results were exceptional examples of mimicry, in the best sense of the word. – they are by no means sub-standard pastiches. It would, and indeed should, be far more preferable that Chinese collectors recognise these pieces as testaments to the superb skills of Canton silversmiths, those skills being just as much worthy of being an integral part of Chinese heritage as a silver object rendered in an intricate collation of traditional Chinese motifs; both are potentially museum-quality.
The circa 1840 tea set illustrated above by the Canton retail silversmith Cutshing is a fine example of Chinese Export Silver in the true neo-classical style. Notwithstanding Chinese silver of this period was consistently made of silver in the region of 30% heavier and thicker gauge to its European counterparts, the Cutshing set may comfortably be considered a Chinese comparable of Paul Storr silver of the same period, as we can see from this tea pot below. This is unfortunately not a fact always acknowledged or concurred with by Western purists. My own view would argue that having Chinese silversmiths with the capability and mastery of silver to create such a quality example as the Cutshing set is extraordinary in itself, given the neo-classical style had no connection whatsoever with early 19th century Chinese culture.
The same could possible be said of Paul Storr whose workshop would probably only have had a notional and idealised view of what the Chinese style is, having no knowledge of the allegorical meaning of almost all traditional Chinese decorative motifs. This William IV Paul Storr 1831 teapot [below] incorporates whimsical allusions to Chinese decorative motifs with the inclusion of prunus blossom with acanthus, but it is in no way Chinese in the pure sense of the style and certainly could never have been conceived by a Chinese master silversmith.
The China Trade, by default of the restrictions imposed upon foreign merchants, was totally centred in Canton. Had it not been for the tea and opium trades which comprised the lion’s share of the trade, it is highly unlikely Chinese Export Silver would have been born. The fact that the quality of workmanship and the silver itself was high, yet the actual manufacturing and the raw silver were cheap relative to Europe and America was the equation that presented itself in Canton, it still wouldn’t have guaranteed the extent Chinese Export Silver would grow. The merchants may have had a presence in Canton but it was the fact the ships offered ballast space that allowed all the peripheral luxury trade goods of the China Trade to be carried at relatively minimal cost. Tea and opium were the main profit earners; silver, lacquer ware, silks, jade, ivory etc were all simply added bonuses, albeit lucrative.
While much of the China Trade might be unpalatable to 21st century minds, it did exist and it is as much part of the history of Chinese culture as it is of America, Britain and European nations who traded with China; much of it has a rich cultural history which has been either forgotten or overshadowed.
In late 18th century Canton there was one silversmith who particularly gained a reputation as a consummate creator of superb items of filigree in the rococo style; filigree and the rococo were almost born to be together. The silversmith in question is Pao Ying and we know of him operating from Old China Street from circa 1780, which indicates he was probably a retail silversmith who commissioned items from artisan silversmiths firmly under his control. The late 17th century is when we see the very beginnings of the Chinese Export Silver manufacturing period emerging; it is also still a period where much of the silver made in China did not carry any silver mark and Pao Ying is one of the earliest makers to begin adopting this formal identification. Given 1780 is the generally accepted beginning of the Chinese Export Silver period, we are left with probably 100 years where silver such as the pair of lidded earns above as well as silver decorated very much in the Chinese style but on objects that are discernibly Western or Islamic being made specifically for clients outside of China. Some of these were tributes from the Chinese Imperial court for European royal households and Eastern potentates, while others were specially commissioned pieces.
This Chinese silver gilt coffee pot and tray [below] are dated circa 1680 and are part of the Royal Collection. Although the provenance of how it came to be in the collection is not known, it is highly likely this would have been a tribute gift from Kangxi to King Charles II. Yet again, this is a fine example of the art of the Chinese silversmiths given that coffee had only been introduced to England less than 30 years prior to this pot being made; certainly a coffee pot would have been an alien concept to a Chinese artisan, yet here we have a masterly fusion of the Chinese style into a Western object. Sadly, being 17th century, there is no maker’s mark as was the normal practice at the time.
Should such a coffee pot ever present itself at an auction house, Chinese collectors would pay a premium to own such an item. They would do so not only because of its age and quality but the fact it is decorated in the Chinese style. Chinese buyers would do likewise for items such as the filigree urns which are typical of work produced by Pao Ying, as in fact happened when these very urns were sold at auction earlier this year for $40,600 [£24,300] to a Chinese collector; yet these urns are not particularly in the Chinese style, they are Baroque.
This presents us with a confusing dichotomy of the preferences of Chinese buyers of Chinese Export Silver that also points to overlooking the early neo-classical items. Good quality filigree Chinese Export Silver makes a relatively rare appearance in auction sales and when it does, it will perform well. It would be a momentous occasion if a 17th century item the same ilk as the coffee pot made it to auction; it does happen and when it does, the roof is raised. Yet we are talking of a rarity of both and certainly Chinese filigree is one of those grey areas where authenticating a true 18th or early 19th century piece is not always straightforward. Neo-classical Chinese Export Silver by Cutshing and contemporary retail silversmiths such as WE WE WC, Linchong, Sun Shing, W.W., Woshing and others, items exist in abundance and they are testaments to genius of Chinese silversmithing, many of them of museum quality.
This circa 1835 Woshing toast rack in the Georgian style is a fine example; when would an early 19th century Chinese silversmith have ever seen a toast rack, let alone knew how it was used; when would a Chinese silversmith ever have seen a slice of toast!
This superb circa 1840 egg cruet by Houcheong; a totally alien object to a Canton maker yet masterfully created to rival the work of best of the London silversmiths, as is the circa 1840 Khecheong fish slice [below]
This WE WE WC gem of the art of silver making [below]; a silver gilt 5 piece tea and coffee set was made circa 1840 is exquisite and rare to an extreme. To those searching for the 5th piece – the teapot is sitting on its own stand. Each of the larger pieces have basket weave bands at the shoulders and running leaf tip rims. The teapot handle rises from an elaborate female mask as the close up detail image shows below.
To many, even making an allusion to values is an anathema; it is something I certainly have at times been castigated for in the past, being felt by some “purists” that discussing the merits of art in the same breath as fiscal values is somehow discrediting. The same purists would argue that monetary values have no place in the appreciation of art or in the history of art. – something I would vehemently beg to differ with. Throughout history the creation and the ownership of art in most of its forms has had a monetary connection, often in the form of patronage which facilitated its creation in the first place. Without patronage, much of the visual and tangible fine art we value today simply wouldn’t exist. At the same time, ownership is a form of patronage and the desire to own is one of the engines that drives the continuum which in turn drives the momentum of worth; a momentum that can go either upwards or downwards according to the fickleness of fashion.
Viewing this is in the context of the neo-classical Chinese Export Silver period [for a period it definitely is], one would have to bring into that equation the relative rarity of this silver in tandem with the high quality of manufacture. To do so would imply a greater monetary value than other Chinese Export Silver which in turn has potential investment implications.
Personally I take the view that if the prospects of a good investment become an intrinsic part of collecting neo-classical Chinese Export Silver, this is not such a bad thing – it can only increase awareness and appreciation of this silver and it will guarantee its survival where so much other neo-classical silver is lost to the scrap heap. The investment value is but one factor in the ownership of art; it can also serve as as a generator of awareness and interest. Most important of all, it will finally bring it into the fold of mainstream Chinese cultural history where it deserves to be.
The extraordinary capability of the silversmiths of the early Chinese Export Silver period to produce neo-classical silver of such quality is just as much a part of Chinese culture as the silver created in the high Chinese style. This is not silver to be passed over; it is silver that needs to be applauded, appreciated and treasured. There is nothing whimsical about these pieces; they are fine examples of Georgian-style silver that embrace the ethics of that style, whereas this example of a Tiffany silver jug [below] is quite definitely a whimsical notion of a “Chinese” landscape trapped within a Victorian Gothic fantasy.
The Superior Man is all-embracing and not partial. The inferior man is partial and not all-embracing
This is a quote from Confucius’ Analects; surely we have arrived at a time when all Chinese Export Silver should be embraced for what it is – the product of the genius of the Chinese silversmiths. Genius it is; treasures to be valued they are.
Paul Storr, 1771-1844: Silversmith and Goldsmith, Norman M. Penzer
Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills
Dreweatts & Bloomsbury Auctions; Royal Collection Trust – Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II; Christie’s, New York; A.C.Silver, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK; Supershrink online; Antiques & The Arts Weekly
Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the www.chinese-export-silver.comarchive
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