Meta-Museum: Wang Hing – The Prolific, Yet Masterful Chinese Silversmith


WANG HING The Prolific, Yet Masterful Chinese Silversmith

Having just completed researching Chinese Export Silver makers’ marks and compiling the catalogue, of the 100+ makers, none appear to have been as prolific as Wang Hing.
While prolific can often mean a reduction in quality, Wang Hing managed to produce some extraordinary items and many of them were actually in the Late Period of Chinese Export Silver making [1880-1940].

Like many of the Chinese Export Silver makers, the name Wang Hing is a purely fictitious one; a not uncommon phenomenon in China where business was often conducted under a name that was intended to invoke good luck and success. As I have stated before, part of my ongoing research is to uncover the mystery of the real “Wang Hing”, and I can report now I am almost there! But whoever was the man at the helm, he was not only a master silversmith of extraordinary talent but he demonstrated entrepreneurial skills that few of his contemporaries seemed to have.

Wang Hing began life at 1 Sai Sing Street in Canton in 1854. Pictured left is a typical scene of Cantonese streetlife of the time. We are talking of the very same time as the second Opium War – it is only 12 years since the Treaty of Nanking and of the founding of Hong Kong as a British colony. It is the golden age of Chinese Export Silver; foreign trade had opened up considerably. So-called Western sophistication had not yet rooted itself in China, as we can see from the street scene.

The fact that Tiffany & Co in New York discovered Wang Hing silver while travelling in China – a discovery that resulted in a 20 year period where Wang Hing created silver for Tiffany – attests to the level of  quality. Wang Hing devised a maker’s mark that was only used on Tiffany items [right]. While it is undoubtedly a testament to the quality of Wang Hing workmanship, it is not just this that might have been the attraction to Tiffany. While the quality was high, the relatively to American and European silver, the cost of making was significantly lower. In fact, prior to adopting Wang Hing silver, Tiffany & Co did not actually stock silver.

The majority of surviving Wang Hing silver is high quality, yet items decorated with predictable Chinese motifs and form. Yet some quite astounding pieces pieces are to be found that equal some of the best parallel Western silversmiths.

Here we have a most extraordinary tazza by Wang Hing. Made circa 1880, it comprises three mother-of-pearl shells affixed to an exquisitely executed virtual bamboo thicket. There is no stinting on detail in this piece; even the shells are attached to the main stems by an ingeniously created silver butterflies, as shown in the illustration [right].

The tazza retains its original hongmu [suanzhi] carved wooden stand.

Here [left] we a large “tyg” made by Wang Hing circa 1895 and marked for Shanghai.

It is an extraordinarily fine example of the Art Nouveau style and is highly unusual for Chinese Export Silver of this period to be devoid of any Chinese motif, displaying highly polished plain silver of  particularly heavy gauge.

The Wang Hing piece holds its own against this English example of the Art Nouveau style by Edward Barnard & Sons [right] or this Glasgow silver piece [below] by Lawson & Co.







Wang Hing was also the undisputed master of goblet making, as this circa 1890 example [below right] shows.


Whereas this consummate teapot [below] takes a classic Georgian tapered canister form and combines with delicate Chinese bamboo motifs set off by the handle and finial. This particular pot was sold at Bonhams last year for £4650.











I cannot end a piece on the brilliance of Wang Hing without showing this superb 1883 lidded standing cup [below]. Both the front and back have oval cartouches elaborately decorated with Chinese court and battle scenes on one side and two pairs of pheonixes [fenghuang], humming birds and a peony amid branches, ricks and prunus blossoms on the other. The body, further decorated with two bands of scrolling foliage on either side, is engraved with two stylised bat-shaped panels in-filled with clumps of bamboo against a ring-mat recessed background.















Interestingly, this cup bears the Wang Hing maker’s mark reserved for Tiffany & Co [right]

Both the lidded cup and the tazza are by courtesy of Michael Backman Ltd, London – one of the leading dealer’s in antique Asian art and objects – renowned supplier to museums around the world.

Here is a preview of Wang Hing’s maker’s marks from my forthcoming Chinese Export SilverMakers’ Marks Catalogue;

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