META-MUSEUM: Chinese Export Silver: Canton Georgian Gems in Massachusetts 在馬薩諸塞州的廣東喬治亞風瑰寶

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Chinese Export Silver: Canton Georgian Gems in Massachusetts


How can one get excited over a silver teapot? No, this isn’t a riddle; it’s a reality! But it’s happening more and more frequently to me as the flow of images being sent to me from around the world of extraordinary examples of Chinese Export Silver hit my desktop.

Late last week a piece of Canton history fell into my inbox. A superb example of a George III silver teapot made by one of Canton’s finest silversmiths that is dripping in China Trade history.

Chinese Export Silver WE WE WC teapot

Here’s the very teapot [above]; a circa 1820 neo-classical Chinese Export Silver teapot by a Canton silversmith who mastered the art of Georgian silver that rivaled the best in London and Boston – the enigmatic silversmith we know as WE WE WC. Such a piece is capable of holding its own against any of its comparable Western contemporaries as we can well see from this Bateman of London teapot [below] made in the very same year.

Chinese Export Silver comparison with Bateman teapot

But this isn’t simply a fine example of WE WE WC silver since it comes laden with provenance that is inextricably linked to both Canton and Boston in the early 19th century. The teapot has been in the Forbes family ever since it was created 193 years ago in the back streets of Old Canton, and if that’s not enough, it had been on long-term loan for many years to the Peabody Essex Museum in Massachusetts; the spiritual home of the China Trade in America.

The Forbes Family has had a close connection with Chinese Export Silver since it came into being. Thomas Tunno Forbes was the first family member to become actively involved with the Canton trade, having been sent there by his uncles James and Thomas Handasyd Perkins. A working relationship was formed with Houqua, the most powerful of all the Hong merchants in Canton. All the spade work Forbes created in those early days was done in the name of Perkins & Co and was done working hand-in-glove with his fellow compatriot agent John P Cushing. As with all things connected with the China trade, the relationship Forbes and Cushing had with Houqua was complex and highly convoluted. We now know that the retail silversmith Cutshing was a form of partnership between Houqua and Cushing with the sole intention of optimising the sale of the high quality yet relatively much cheaper silver made in Canton back in Boston. Researching the papers of Russell & Co and Perkins & Co [a volume of papers that exists literally in tonnage], I am beginning to see signs that WE WE WC was another purpose-made partnership that involved Houqua, Forbes and Perkins & Co. Russell & Co eventually took over Perkins & Co in 1830.

Mystery abounds when it comes to most of the Chinese Export Silver makers, but if there were Oscars for mystery then WE WE WC would win hands down. We have no idea what the initials mean or even if they mean anything at all. We don’t know if it was purely through happenstance that the maker’s mark used by WE WE WC was a tongue-in-cheek “copy” of the London mark for Eley, Fearn and Chawner. In the fervour that gripped early Chinese Export Silver to adopt so-called pseudo-hallmarks, the WE WE WC mark doubly stands out; whereas many of the makers inserted the letter “K” where an English hallmark would have a letter denoting the year of manufacture, WE WE WC used the letter “P”. My ongoing research is showing increasing signs this quite probably stood for Perkins.

Chinese Export Silver makers mark for WE WE WC

What I haven’t yet revealed is why an image of the teapot landed in my inbox. This piece of important history is appearing in auction this very month! Having such an access that could lead to an acquisition of history in the shape of a museum quality item of silver is an all too rare opportunity, but it also highlights the fact that Chinese Export Silver is a relatively unknown and much misunderstood silver category. Equally, the phenomenon we know as The China Trade is equally unknown and mis-understood. Both are important areas of collective Chinese cultural history that both the West and China only recently discovered there was a steep learning curve still to climb.

Chinese Export Silver Standing Cip by Lee Ching

Although The China Trade has implications for the Chinese of Western domination and exploitation that could present uncomfortable learning, the outpouring of superb objets d’art that were the physical product of the trade is something China needs to be proud of – the product, in this case, should overshadow the cause.

Another Forbes Family heirloom appears in the same auction in the shape of this superb Lee Ching standing cup that was presented to James Murray Forbes, a partner in the firm Russell & Co. The cup is known to have been presented by Oliver Hazard Perry II, the American Consul in Canton on his departure from China after his term of duty ended in 1867. This, therefore, dates the cup as being towards the end of Lee Ching’s period of manufacture. Details of the presentation ceremony and the cup itself are contained in J. Murray Forbes’ “Recollections and Events from the Threshold of Eighty Five”, Boston, 1930. The cup is also illustrated and discussed in detail in Forbes, Kernan & Wilkins’ “Chinese Export Silver 1785-1885”.

James Murray Forbes was the son of Robert Bennet Forbes, the foremost of all the Forbes Family China traders.

Given Chinese Export Silver goblets are relatively common, this cup, although it resembles a typical goblet design, stands much higher than a goblet at 22cm – making it a presentation cup rather than a goblet and having both American and Chinese historical relevance. The cup was also on loan for a time to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem.

Chinese Export Silver detail of base of Lee Ching standing cup

In particular, because of the size of this cup, the typically Chinese style of having the bamboo culmes actually growing out of the rocks in the base of the cup with the root system on show is a wonderful demonstration of the creative minds of the Chinese silversmiths. Symbolism and allegory are synonymous with Chinese art. Combine this with bamboo, one of the plants most linked with China, and you get potential for strong messaging. The bamboo signifies strength and dignity as well as humility and a pure heart.  But here we have a cup that was designed to be specific to the person receiving it and we can see from the three examples of goblets below that unlike them, the standing cup portrays bamboo roots among rocks. This allegorical combination of bamboo [humility] and rocks [steadfastness] represents the virtuous qualities of a Confucian gentleman. The receiver of the cup was a departing powerful merchant of the China Trade; the cup is clearly meant to be the ultimate compliment as he departs the shores of China.

Seeing these two historic pieces made me realise how so many American merchants from a relatively small area in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania were active in Canton in the 19th century. Although the British China Trade was larger than the American, the former was monopolised by the British East India Company and the newly formed partnership of Scottish merchants Jardine & Matheson. There was no American monopoly as such but there was a predominance of Quaker merchants. The vast fortunes made in Canton in a relatively short period of time became the funding stream for a great wave of railroad and textile mill building in America in the 19th century that would not have happened had it not been for the China Trade. The most powerful Hong merchant, Houqua, made vast investment in America too.

3 Chinese Export Silver goblets by Chi Cheong Wang Hing & Lee Ching

This focus on the roots of the bamboo and the use of a trio of bamboo culmes to support a goblet cup is peculiar to Chinese Export Silver as we can see from the further examples of goblets above – [from left to right] Chi Cheong, Wang Hing and Lee Ching. Versions of these goblets supported on bamboo abound. Bamboo, because it grows in thickets close to the parent plant, is a symbol of filial piety. Many of these goblets were made as an alternative to the more traditional christening mug or tankard.

In the Chinese language within the context of Chinese art the word for bamboo is zhú and it has a homophone in the word for “wish” or “congratulate” zhù, rendering such a goblet congratulatory.

Two very different pieces sharing a commonality, both being keystone pieces of a shared history – The China Trade. Two in a single sale is something of a rarity in itself, but one hopes that the history will be as appreciated as the quality of the art of the Chinese Export Silver makers.

10 Chinese Export Silver muffineers & caters by CJ Company

On a somewhat bizarre end note and on a completely other tangent, details of another auction lot reached my inbox that I felt duty bound to share – a lot that also shares a common theme of bamboo. This rather wonderful collection of ten muffineers and casters are all by the same maker, C.J.Company [aka The China Jewelry Company] of ShangHai, made circa 1885.  They are obviously all one family and the fact they managed to stay together for 123 years is nigh miraculous. Apart from the magnificence of them as a family group, one is left thinking their original home must have been substantial to say the least – or is one left thinking “why ten muffineers”! Is this what one calls a “plethora of muffineers”? When I first glanced at the image I was convinced for a second that someone had recreated Gaudi’s “La Familia Sagrada” in silver; instead, I guess we have a sacred family of muffineers. It is a miracle of survival.

Allegory plays a part in this set too. The combination of bamboo, prunus and pine form a well-known motif in Chinese art known as “The Three Friends of Winter”, a term that finds its roots back in the 13th century in “The Record of the Five-cloud Plum Cottage” from “The Clear Mountain Collection” by Lin Jingxi:

 “For his residence, earth was piled to form a hill and a hundred plum trees, which along with lofty pines and tall bamboo comprise the friends of winter, were planted”

The pine, prunus and bamboo are the most resilient of trees since they don’t wither and shed as winter approaches.They became symbols that encouraged people to persevere in adversity, providing inspiration through consolation and determination. Perhaps this is how ten muffineers survived the years as en famille!

As Confucius said:

“The progress of the superior man is upwards; the progress of the mean man is downwards.”

or, while on a completely different planet, Mae West was once heard to say:

“You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough”Chinese Export Silver

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Adrien von Ferscht is an Honorary Research Fellow at University of Glasgow’s Scottish Centre for China Research

Adrien von Ferscht is the Worthologist expert for Chinese Export Silver


Chinese Export Silver

Adrien von Ferscht’s website is the largest online information resource for Chinese Export Silver:

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:

Chinese Export Silver Makers Marks New Catalogue Launch

Chinese Export Silver

Acknowledgments to Danny Cheng in Hong Kong for his translation skills

To: Grogan & Company – Auctioneers, Dedham, Massachusetts; Marc Matz, USA

Unless otherwise stated, all images are from the archive which is managed by Christopher Hunter at

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