The Absence of an Assay System in China

A nation with a 1400 year history of silver making and an economy that was obsessed with being silver-based until well into the 20th century, it is strange to learn that it could exist without any assay system.

In the 155-year Chinese Export Silver manufacturing period, the vast majority of silver items that were made did carry a silver mark, 100 years of which many of the marks indicated the purity content by the addition of a number, more often than not 90 or simply the word ‘sterling’. With no regulation or even self-regulation of silver marks, one could be left wondering how credible the marks we are presented with actually are.

Silver poured into China over several centuries. Generally it would have come from one of four sources; mines in Spanish Central and South America, Japan or China itself as well as from silver trade dollars used to trade with China at the insistence of the Imperial court by various Western trading nations that were allowed to trade.

Philip III 8 Reales Silver Coin

An early King Philip III of the Spains 8 reales cob coin; 27.7gm; 0.917 silver Potosi Mint [Bolivia] Philip III: The House of Hapsburg Philip was styled “Philip the Third, by the grace of God, King of Castile, Leon, Aragon and the Two Sicilies, Jerusalem, Portugal, Navarre, Granada, Toledo, Valencia, Galicia, the Majorcas, Seville, Cordoba, Corsica, Murcia, Guinea, Algarve, Gibraltar, the Canary Islands, also of the Eastern and Western Indies, and the Islands and Terra Firma of the Ocean Sea, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy and Milan, Count of Habsburg, Barcelona, and Biscay, and Lord of Molina, etc

The first silver dollar came into being in 1598 as a result of monetary reform in Spain in the shape of the 8 Reales coin [peso de ocho or ‘pieces of eight’], the term peso becoming the basis of currencies in most of the former Spanish colonies. One of the main purposes of this coin was to correlate with the German Thaler, a term derived from the word thal or ‘valley’; Joachimsthal being the valley in the Czech Republic [the then Holy Roman Empire] where silver ore was mined. The word thal  passed into Scandinavian countries as daler and into English as dollar.

Emperor Ferdinand I 1549 Silver Thaler

Holy Roman Empire 1549 Thaler silver coin
showing the head of Emperor Ferdinand I, the House of Hapsburg and son of the Spanish King Philip I of Castile
Ferdinand’s full titulature, rarely used, went as follows: Ferdinand, by the grace of God elected Holy Roman Emperor, forever August, King in Germany, of Hungary, Bohemia, Dalmatia, Croatia, Slavonia, Rama, Serbia, Galicia, Lodomeria, Rumania and Bulgaria, etc. Prince-Infante in Spain, Archduke of Austria, Duke of Burgundy, Brabant, Styria, Carinthia, Carniola, Margrave of Moravia, Duke of Luxembourg, the Upper and Lower Silesia, Württemberg and Teck, Prince of Swabia, Princely Count of Habsburg, Tyrol, Ferrette, Kyburg, Gorizia, Landgrave of Alsace, Margrave of the Holy Roman Empire, Enns, Burgau, the Upper and Lower Lusatia, Lord of the Wendish March, Pordenone and Salins, etc.

The dynamic created by China’s long-term acquisition of silver from Central and South America made for a complex series of phenomena that at times presented serious consequences to different areas of Europe and in fact to world trade as we know it today.

In the 16th century, Spain was quick to understand the vast economic potential of Peru where in the highlands [alti plano] of Upper Peru Potosi sat upon the largest concentration of silver deposits in what was then considered to be the Western World. While some of the deposits were to be found on the surface, the vast majority of deposits were within the mountains. After an initial high-yield period of 15 years, production soon fell when the realisation hit that this was going to be a long-term project that would depend on a high level and consistency of manpower. Deep mining also required new technology to make it feasible. As a result, Toledo had to impose new laws on its colony that were tantamount to a form of “national service” that compelled males to “serve” as miners every six years in strict rotation. The indigenous Indian population was ‘organised’ to optimise the the production of corn, wheat and coca leaves as well as silver. The absolute control of the Spanish colonial rule demanded a substantial ‘tribute’ payment from the Indians that went directly to the Spanish Crown. Hydraulic technology was introduced to mining and an on-site mint was established at Potosi to create silver coinage and ingot bars.

The reality of the regime imposed upon the Indians was completely uncaring and brutal. The greed-driven Spanish stance could be likened to a full-scale rape and plunder of the food and mineral capabilities the country presented.

Firstly, Potosi must be taken in the context of it being situated some 4100 metres above sea level – it was to become the highest city in the world. Potosi was also unequivocally expropriated by the Spanish Crown and the population forced to work it. In an account written by José de Acosta, a Jesuit, in 1569 he wrote “ Indians labour in these mines in continual darkness and obscurity, without knowledge of day or night. And forasmuch as those places are never visited with the sun, there is not only a continual darkness, but also an extreme cold, with so foul an air contrary to the disposition of man, that such as newly enter are as they are at sea.” He then deliberates on the process of separating the silver from the lethal quicksilver [mercury]: “When the melting is finished, they unstop the pots and draw forth the metal, sometimes staying until it be very cold, for if there remained any fume or vapour, which should encounter them that unstopped the pots, they were in danger of death, or to be benumbed of least to loose their teeth, their limbs, or fat.

If this wasn’t perilous enough, the ore was first carried out of the interior of the mine by carrying loads in the region of 11 kilograms physically on human backs up a series of vertical ladders in the pitch dark of the shafts. José de Acosta concludes with an appeal to the Spanish Emperor “Your Majesty should know: where do the mine owners get the means to dress up all in silk and gold and silver, other than from the labor of the poor Indians and from what they steal from Your Majesty? Therefore, it would be good that these mine owners be inspected every six months and audited…”

Potosi Hill Silver Mine

A 16th century woodcut of Potosi Hill [Cerro de Potosi], aka Rich Hill [Cerro Rico]

In the 16th century, Potosi was nothing more than a backwater town. By the mid-17th century the population of Potosi was in the region of 160,000, equal to the population of Paris and London at the time and probably double that of Madrid. Potosi, though, grew as a city of many colours and creeds.

1639 Inquisition Tribunal, Lima

1639 Tribunal of the Inquisition [Auto de la Fé] held in Lima

The merging of the Spanish and Portuguese crowns in 1580 also led to thousands of Jewish Marranos from Portugal arriving in Peru, where the financial opportunities were potentially great and it was considered to be safe.  Certain customs still maintained by old families in the region such as the lighting of candles on Friday nights and sitting on the ground in mourning when a close relative dies, suggest Jewish ancestry. Having endeavoured to escape the Inquisition at the time of the unification of the two Iberian crowns, Marrano Jews soon found themselves in exactly the same situation with the establishment of an Inquisition in Lima. In 1570 a letter was sent to the General Inquisitor referring specifically to Peru and Chile stating “with respect to the few Spaniards in these parts, there are two times as many converts as in Spain”.

Spain introduced the laws of the Inquisition to Peru which at the time comprised all its colonies in South America in 1569.

Grand Inquisitors Francisco Verdugo and Andrés Juan Gayton both reported at the time that “The village of Potosi is so full of Portuguese…..and generally speaking they are all from the Hebrew nation, and our experience shows that those who have been imprisoned by the Inquisition all Judaize and that they now live very cautiously and are no longer as easily identifiable as before”.

Henry Charles Lea, American historian,  wrote in 1908 in his 4 volume body of work ‘The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies’ about Portuguese ‘New Christians’: “They became masters of the commerce of the kingdom; from brocade to sack-cloth, from diamonds to cumin seed, everything passed through their hands; the Castilian who had not a Portuguese partner could look for no success in trade.”

1571 is the year world trade was effectively born. It was also the year Manila, in the Philippines, came into being; the Spanish having created the last link in a maritime network between the Americas and Asia, previously dominated by their arch rivals the Portuguese. As with world trade, silver was the main cargo and China was inevitably the final destination.

The Dutch and English East India Companies have, for centuries, had us believe that it was Europe that fired the engine of Asia. The reality was exactly the reverse. Had China’s unquenchable thirst not existed, neither would these two companies. To compound matters, China produced luxury items the West couldn’t get enough of, namely porcelain, silks, tea, paintings, lacquerware, metalwork and ivory. Since its inception, world trade has always had potentially unfortunate side effects, trade imbalance being one of them.

Towards the late 16th century and into the early 17th century, the exchange rate for gold against silver in Spain was between 1:12 and 1:14. In China the rate was between 1:5 and 1:7. This clearly demonstrates that silver had an intrinsic value double that of Europe within China. Such a divergent value of a single commodity creates exceptional prospects for what is known as “profitable arbitrage trade”; trade that profits by exploitation of price or value differences of identical or similar financial instruments on different markets or in different forms. In some ways, China was utilising a financial strategy that is not far from being what we recognise today as a “hedge fund”!

Mexico tried in vain to limit the amount of silver being shipped to China trying to keep it in the region of 150 tons annually. They more or less achieved this, however it is generally estimated that in excess of 300 tons annually was managed to be smuggled out and onwards to China. Manila was shipping 50 tons annually. To put this into some perspective, fifty tons of silver is approximately the average annual exports to Asia by Portugal, the Dutch and the English East India Companies combined in the 17th century.

One cannot help wondering how different the picture might have been had the once Ming maritime fleet not come to an abrupt halt when it did. The Dutch and the English East India Companies might not have succeeded!

The Spanish monarchy was to reap the most benefits from New World silver mining by imposing an initial 20% tax on the gross value extracted at source. They then levied further taxation on precious metals entering Seville en route for China of 27%. Mining profits provided the fiscal foundation for the Spanish Empire. Without China’s incessant need for ever-more silver, Spain would not have been able to finance a series of wars [some simultaneously] with the Ottomans, Protestant England and Holland, France, the New World as well as Asia, not to mention against the indigenous population in the Philippines. China, unwittingly, changed the balances of power within Europe simply by its hunger for silver.

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.

But New World silver was not the only source of raw silver for China. A succession of Emperors had been adamant that apart from silver, the West could offer nothing to China. Not only did they not import anything, but successive Emperors insisted that in order to trade with China for the luxury items the West sought payment could only be made using what have become known as Trade Dollars. They were also part of the eventual catalyst that gave birth to Chinese Export Silver, with much of this coinage being melted down into sycee [ingots – yuánbǎo 元宝] which in turn created the general accepted assumption that most Chinese Export Silver is .90 fine.

Chinese Silver Sycee

Money handlers, known as shroffs were responsible for determining the purity and weight in taels [liang 两] of the ingots, including appropriate discounts and premiums. Individual silversmiths were responsible for their manufacture and not as one might expect, an official mint. Despite the involvement of the shroffs, we do know that “bad” sycee did get through the checks, sometimes even containing small stones or gravel.

1739 Philip Fifth Silver Trade Dollar

1739 trade dollar from the Mexico mint showing the ‘pillars of Hercules” on the reverse side [left] which is the emblem of Seville and thought to be the inspiration that created the modern ‘$’ symbol. On the obverse side [right] PHILIP[PUS] V D[EI] G[RATIA] HISPAN[IARUM] ET IND[IARUM] REX
“Philip V, by the Grace of God, King of the Spains and the Indies”
Displays the arms of Castile and León with Granada in base and an inescutcheon of Anjou.

Mexican trade dollars were [8 Reales or “pieces of eight”] were issued at 420 grains, a fundamental unit of the Troy system of wight measurement, nominally based on a grain of barley – Troy being the official weight for many European countries and in England from 1527. The fineness was .903 silver.

1776 Charles III 'Carolus' Trade Dollar

1776 8 Reales Charles III trade dollar known as the “Carolus” dollar

Immediately after the signing of the Treaty of Nanking in 1842, the trade dollar, known affectionately as the Carolus dollar, became the preferred payment method and often was considered to have a premium value up to 15% above its prevailing silver content value.

The American trade dollar was first issued in 1873 and was minted in large quantities at the Carson City, San Francisco and Philadelphia mints. It was never intended for circulation within America and was to be used in competition with the Mexican trade dollar for trade with China. It was issued as 420 grains, the same as the Mexican dollar but set it apart from the regular standard silver dollar which had 412.5 grains. It is believed that some 36 million trade dollar coins were minted, the American government receiving a 100 cent levy on every coin issued. The fineness of the US trade dollar was .900 [90%], approximately 8 grains more than the the domestic silver dollar and 4 more than the Peso.

Because of an an ever-growing demand for tea and other luxury goods in the United Kingdom and America and an insistence of only silver in payment, this resulted in large continuous trade deficits. A trade imbalance came into being that was highly unfavourable and intolerable for Britain.

It is estimated approximately 270 million British Trade dollars were circulated in total. Mercantilist governments resented this perpetual drain of silver from West to East in payment for Oriental goods that were in high demand in the Occident, while facing low demand in the Orient for Occidental goods. Also, as a result of the Treaty of Nanking after the first “Opium War” and with the extension of British trading interests in the East, especially after the founding of Singapore in 1819 and Hong Kong in 1842, it became necessary to produce a special Dollar so as to remove the reliance of a British Colony upon the various foreign coins then in circulation.

The first British trade dollar was minted in 1895  exclusively for use in the Far East, depicts Britannia standing on shore holding a trident in one hand and balancing a British shield in the other, with a merchant ship under full sail in the background. On the reverse is an arabesque design with the Chinese symbol for longevity in the centre, and the denomination in two languages – Chinese and Jawi Malay. Those marked with ‘C’ were minted in Calcutta and those with ‘B’ at the Bombay mint. The fineness was 0.900 silver, although the original trial coin was minted in 0.925 silver.

British Trade Dollar

A 1906 British silver trade dollar

When designing the coin, it was decided not to have an image of Queen Victoria as it was not considered politic to portray an empress on a coin to be used in a country ruled by an emperor. Well over 267,200,000 British trade dollars are known to have been struck and circulated from the two Indian mints, but several re-strikes are known to have happened although scant records of these exist.

Chop Marked Trade DollarsAs trade dollars from all sources entered China, merchants would apply their ‘chop mark’ in order to guarantee authenticity and content. It was also a cunning way for merchants to advertise. Payment for invoices issued in China often called for ‘first chop’ coins – coins with only one chop mark were considered to have minimal loss of silver from only one incuse mark. It was common for merchants to insist on ‘first chop Mexican dollars’, these being the most valuable in terms of silver content and purity.

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.

1904 Dragon Dollar

A 1904 Kiangnan Province ‘Dragon’ dollar

In the early 20th century, China decided to try to control the array of silver coinage circulating by minting its own version which became known as “dragon” or “kwangtung” dollars. It transpired that the coins were marked with the names of provincial mints which, in tandem with scaremongering rumours that the coins were inferior to their trade dollar counterparts, caused the the project to end in failure.

Zhou Xicheng Auto Dollar

The warlord Zhou Xicheng’s silver dollar that became known as the AUTO DOLLAR commemorating the opening of his Kweichow Highway. On the following year it is said that the warlord Zhou Xicheng was driving his automobile on the road that he constructed. He then sped up and left his troops at a distance behind him. Shockingly, he was ambushed by rebel enemy troops and, while trying to escape, he ran out of his car and was left dead on the grass on the side of the road.

Towards the end of the Qing dynasty when the warlords were rife, local warlords used their nearest provincial mint to issue their own ‘dragon money’ which simply added confusion to an already chaotic coinage pot. As a result of the warlord connection of these coins, they were often found to be far inferior in quality and content than any previously issued coinage.

Zhou Xicheng Dollar SignatureThe last in the line of Chinese attempts at a silver dollar was the Yuan Shih-kai dollar or “Fatman” dollar, as it was more popularly known. In a survey carried out by the Shanghai Bank, of the 960 million silver dollars known to be in circulation in 1924, 750 million were Fatman dollars. The coin was in fact produced between 1914 and 1921 and had a purity of .890 silver and weighed 26.4gm. In the first year it was struck, some 300,000 dollars were minted every day at the Central Mint in Tianjin. These coins can be identified by a distinctive ’T’ edge mill to the coin sides.

Whether the issue of Yuan Shih-kai dollar coins stabilised the monetary system in China is debatable, but at the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Mexican dollar was still considered to be superior or more desirable to the Chinese counterpart. It should also be taken into the context of 280 million ‘dragon’ dollars that were withdrawn and melted when the ‘Fatman’ was introduced. It is also known that although the date span of the Fatman dollar was 1914-1921, a substantial amount of ‘copy’ coins were produced and circulated – some of these coins were so low in silver content that it was possible to attract them with a magnet. Many of these sub-standard coins were made and issued after 1921 and carried spurious year dates. What is certain is that after the fall of the Qing dynasty and the establishment of the republic period, the integrity of silver currency circulating in China had begun to be compromised.  When this happens, it is inevitably driven by a combination of greed, a known lack of an assay system and a general lack of checks, balances and written records. With Chinese Export Silver still in production at this time and knowing the approximate timing of this breakdown in the integrity of silver coinage, one might be led to question the accuracy of silver marks on silver items that purported to convey information of the silver purity.

Fatman Silver Dollar

The ‘Fatman’ Silver Dollar

However, it is already a well-established fact that silver marks that appear on Chinese silver from the late 18th century until the early 1940s convey little useful information. Equally well-established is the fact that no regulatory system existed for silver items manufactured in China during this period and there was no legal obligation to mark silver. There is no conformity to Chinese silver marks and some, in particular the neo-classical pieces made in the late 18th century to around 1840, bore marks that were often more whimsical and to the detriment of being useful sources of information. This does not necessarily mean, however, that silver items of the Chinese Export Silver manufacturing era were inferior in either silver purity or workmanship – in most cases they weren’t and in many cases they were superior to Western counterparts.

While extensive forensic research has been carried out on Western silver, relatively little has has been undertaken with a specific focus on Chinese Export Silver. In 1993, however, an investigative analysis project was undertaken by Janice Carlson at Winterthur Museum’s Scientific Research and Analysis Laboratory in Delaware, USA that did just this. The fact it had little impact at the time and has sadly languished in an archive until quite recently may probably be due to the fact few people were actually aware of the existence of Chinese Export Silver in the early 1990s.

Janice Carlson employed X-ray Fluorescent Spectrometry [XRF Analysis], an analytical non-destructive technique that uses the interaction of x-rays with a material to determine its elemental composition and is widely used today in museums, archeology and precious metal assay offices.

The analytical exercise was performed on 48 carefully chosen hollow-ware objects that were unquestionably attributable to the Chinese Export Silver manufacturing period. While the XRF investigation were faultlessly carried out, the point of reference with regards to period, age and what was then believed to be the ‘makers’ was the body of work of Crosby Forbes et al, 1975. This is where the science  goes slightly awry since the Crosby Forbes work only acknowledged silver that was present in the USA and in most cases what were taken to be ‘makers’ were in fact retail silversmiths. The three manufacturing periods set out by the Crosby Forbes work were created out of first-hand knowledge of the interaction of the Massachusetts Bay merchants in the China Trade, Crosby Forbes being a descendant of one of the merchant families. The project also adopted Crosby Forbes’ belief that the majority of Chinese Export Silver made between 1840 and 1885 went to the United States. Quite simply, this is incorrect and through research and findings carried out in the past six years, a far truer picture and understanding of this complex silver phenomenon is now known*. None of this, however, greatly affects the findings of Carlson’s analysis.

As a counter reference, XRF analysis was first carried out on two Spanish ‘8 Reales’ Mexican silver coins [no dates were given for the coins] which were found to have an average of:

XRF Analysis of Trade Dollar

The silver objects were divided into three manufacturing periods using Crosby Forbes as a guide and then sub-divided into what at the time were believed to have been makers’s marks, but were in fact retail silversmiths’ marks. The fact that Chinese retail silversmiths used outside artisan workshops and as a result had no effective ‘quality’ control over the purity of silver being used should not unduly compromise Carlson’s findings, but at the time of the research, Carlson believed the marks to be those of actual makers, as did Crosby Forbes.

The findings clearly demonstrate a variation of the average silver purity according to the period of manufacture the items were attributed to. That attribution could only have been a subjective one and it is unclear who carried out the identification of objects and when that was done – both of which are relevant given how much the understanding of Chinese Export Silver has changed since the 1980s/1990s.

XRF Results Chinese Export Silver Hollow Ware

The analysis was further expanded to include 87 items of  Chinese Export Silver flatware flatware [cutlery]:

XRF Results Chinese Export

These findings are both interesting and not surprising given the collective history of what was effectively raw silver coming into China over almost 500 years. Focussing on the hollow ware, the varying silver purity of each manufacturing period loosely reflects the reality of the source of silver entering China, while the average of 91.63 across the three manufacturing indices brings a logic to another silver marking phenomenon of the late 19th century and very early 20th century.

Wang Hing Edward of Glasgow MarksThe Chinese retail silversmith Wang Hing & Company is really the only such retailer that regularly exported to Great Britain – or perhaps it would be more correct to say that a known Glasgow retail silversmith regularly imported silver wares from Wang Hing & Company over a period of approximately 40 years.

Edward & Sons in Glasgow was known to stock items of Wang Hing silver that also carried the GlasgowWang Hing and Glasgow Marks assay office hallmark. The Wang Hing mark carrying a purity value of .96 [above] is particularly interesting. This value only ever appears on items sent to Edwards. More usual, however, is the .95 value [right]. The overriding norm for a Wang Hing silver mark with no connection to any non-Chinese silversmith is .90

Wang Hing Silver Marks

The British assay system was set up in order to test the purity [assay] of precious metals. Once an assay officer had successfully assayed an item [i.e. found the metallurgical content was found to be equal or better than that claimed by the maker and it conforms to the prevailing law], a hallmark could be applied. In the case of items from Wang Hing, in principle they were not the actual maker and at the time Wang Hing was supplying Edward & Sons, it is highly doubtful there was an understanding that the Chinese character mark was the artisan silversmith’s mark. It was known, however, that China and Hong Kong had no formal assay system and it would have been equally doubtful that the London assay office would have asserted to mark such silver.

Glasgow was historically the main port where tea from China was landed and was also the port where much of the opium was landed. Silver wares were always shipped as a ballast cargo; it was never the main cargo a ship would have carried. Scottish merchants were by far in the majority among all the merchant traders involved in the China Trade, which begs the question whether the Glasgow assay office had a more laissez-faire attitude towards silver coming into Glasgow from China specifically for Edward & Sons.  It also begs the question why and how Wang Hing increased the silver purity mark for Edward-bound items.  While these questions remain open-ended, it is planned to conduct a XRF analysis of Edward & Sons/Wang Hing items in the near future.**

In the absence of any conformity of Chinese Export Silver marks, It is interesting to note that the most confusing period of marking relates to silver made between 1785 and 1840 when by far the most prevalent marks were so-called ‘pseudo-hallmarks’.  The vast majority of this silver was created in the neo-classical style and from a silver-making perspective this is often silver comparable in quality to the work of the finest English and European silversmiths of the day. No silver thus marked carried any indicator of silver purity – it is not until after 1840 that purity marks began to appear, such marks never being obligatory and always at the random whim of either the maker or the retail silversmith.Chinese pseudo hallmarks

While these marks are mere pastiches of the “real thing” [i.e. a London hallmark], they give a fascinating clue to the complex global reality that was their raison d’être.

Between the years 1810-1820, there was a serious decline in output from the South American silver mines that resulted in a drop of over 50% in the mined silver; the cause was the civil chaos that resulted from the strive for independence in Mexico. This not only reduced the amount of silver available for China to acquire but it had serious implications on established trades other nations had with China, for example the tea and silk trade that Britain generated. Britain also had far less silver available to fulfil its own manufacturing needs as a result. Less silver in Britain launched the manufacturing costs and retail prices of English and Scottish silversmiths on a steep upward curve. Despite the fall in new silver available to it, China had far more silver bullion available due to centuries of stockpiling than Britain or any other country on earth. Chinese silversmiths demanded a fraction of the price of a London or Birmingham silversmith yet their quality of Canton workmanship was on a par with the very best in Britain.

British merchants in Canton were quick to realise this, so did the ever-wily sea captains plying the China Trade routes and the controlling Hong merchants in Canton were operating on exactly the same wavelength. This is the main reason why we are aware of so much Chinese silver made in this period in the neo-classical “Georgian” style. It is this combined dynamic that caused such an outpouring of pseudo-English silver from Canton to Britain and to America’s Massachusetts Bay and not, as had been the general perception of this phenomenon, some whimsical desire to create silver in the a potpourri of classical Western styles.

Mid 19th Century Chinese Export Silver Tea and Coffee Set

An early-mid 19th century tea and coffee set in the neo-classical style with the beginnings of Chinese influences

There has also been a long-held school of thought that entrepreneurial sea captains brought redundant Western silver to Canton to be ‘re-cycled’ into newer, more fashionable pieces that were then re-exported back. It is highly doubtful this was the case. Not only were the neo-classical pieces created in Canton generally of a far heavier gauge of silver to any Western counterpart, the sheer logistics of reprocessing existing silver items makes no sense whatsoever. Equally, the belief that silver examples were brought to Canton to copy is hard to substantiate given this would have meant valuable silver items being away from its owners for over a year at a time when they would have been at their height of fashion and social desirability. The lifestyles of the privileged foreign merchants resident in the ‘factories’ at Canton and, in particular, their entertaining, was legendary. An abundance of the finest china, silverwares and cutlery would have been in everyday use at table and it is more likely that these provided the templates for the skilled Canton silversmiths to copy as well as provide ‘inspiration’ for some artistic licence.

Assay systems are an effective method to ensure consistency of silver quality of manufactured items.  British silverwares, for example, have remained at or near the Sterling standard of 92.5% for several centuries. American silver, which was not governed by such a system, although hovering at an average of around 90% purity, was actually known to have varied over quite a wide range. Yet in China, which also had no regulatory system, an average purity of 90.5% was achieved over the entire 155 year manufacturing period of the Chinese Export Silver era. This is hardly surprising given the raw material sources were either ingots from high-quality mined silver or silver trade dollars of known provenance.


Despite the absence of an assay system and any form of state-imposed regulation, for over 500 years, Chinese silver and silverwares maintained a remarkable consistency of silver purity.

* “CHINESE EXPORT SILVER 1785-1940 – The Definitive Collectors’ Guide” by Adrien von Ferscht, [2015] – Tsinghua University, Beijing; University of Glasgow.

** Planned research to be carried out at the Chinese Silver Research Institute [CSRI] at Tsinghua University, Beijing


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Ferdinand I, Holy Roman emperor. The Columbia Encyclopaedia, Sixth Edition. [2001]

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Gunter Böhm, Los Judios en Chile durante la Colonia [Santiago. 1948]

Letter written by the Inquisitors Francisco Verdugo and Andrés Juan Gayton, 4 May 1622. Archivo Histórico Nacional, Madrid [Inquisición Libro 1038]

Henry Charles Lea, The Inquisition in the Spanish Dependencies, Volumes 1-4, [1909]

Krause, Chester L. and Mishler, Clifford: Standard Catalog of World Coins [1996]

Julian, R. W., The Rise and Fall of the Trade Dollar [2003]

Bertin, E. P., Principles and Practice of X-ray Spectrometric Analysis, Kluwer Academic / Plenum Publishers

Carlson, Janice H., X-ray Fluorescent Analysis of Chinese Export Silver, Winterthur Museum, Delaware, USA [1993]


The Museum of Money, Moscow, Russia; Daniel Frank Sedgwick, LLC, Florida, USA; The Royal Mint Museum Library, London


Chao Huang, Institute of Science & Technology and Cultural Heritage, University of Science and Technology, Beijing

                        China Center, Center for Cultural Studies on Science and Technology in China, Technische Universität Berlin

Academia.eduChinese Silver Research Institute

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