Chinese export silver was produced in China from the mid-18th to mid-20th century for a largely Western audience. It was made in the European style from melted Spanish silver (historically, the only currency Chinese merchants would accept for the trading of goods, such as tea, silks and spices, out of China), and falls largely into three periods: early-, late- and post-China Trade.
How did the market develop in the West?
In the mid-18th century, European trade with China was restricted to the port of Canton (now known as Guangzhou), which facilitated the collection of taxes on exported goods under the Qianlong Emperor, who reigned between 1735 and 1796. Although the West had been trading in Chinese silks, spices and teas for almost 150 years by this point, the market for Chinese export silver did not flourish until the 1750s, when the international trading value of silver fell dramatically. During this pivotal moment of trade between China and the West, traditional Chinese motifs were combined with Western-inspired forms to create new, highly desirable works of art. ‘With its mix of Western forms and Eastern iconography, Chinese export silver reflects a moment of unique cultural exchange,’ says Christie’s specialist Jill Waddell.
What is the current market for Chinese export silver?
According to Waddell, the market is predominantly guided by the tastes of American, Asian and European buyers, and is primarily concerned with intricately decorated pieces featuring dragons or delicate filigree work produced during the 19th century.Many pieces of Chinese export silver were presented as gifts or prizes, and were often engraved with the recipients’ names, dates, and other information. ‘These engraved inscriptions allow collectors to draw tangible links between the past and the present and to forge an emotional connection with the work of art,’ observes Waddell.
What are the rare forms and decorative elements to know?
While popular and marketable objects such as tea services, dressing table sets and cigarette cases survive in greater numbers, large-scale objects and rare forms such as candlesticks, flasks and even celery vases are of particular interest to contemporary collectors. Silver pagodas and rosewater sprinklers made for the Ottoman market are also highly desirable.The four primary decorative elements that appear throughout Chinese art are the chrysanthemum, prunus, orchid and bamboo. They are meant to represent the four seasons, and were also known as the Four Noble Ones, or The Four Gentlemen.
What should new collectors be aware of?
While it is not unusual for silver objects of considerable age and daily use to show signs of general wear (such as light scratching or denting), collectors should look out for more serious issues including solder repairs to handles, hinges, or other areas of stress, and signs that an object has suffered significant damage from mishandling.
Many pieces of Chinese export silver have erasures, or areas where earlier monograms or inscriptions have been removed, so collectors should inspect these areas closely to ensure that this has not resulted in thinness.
Lee Yee Ming 900 Silver Forks with Jade Buddhas - $5K Appraisal Value
This beautiful and unique set of forks is made by Lee Yee Ming from 900 silver (90% silver). Lee Yee Ming produced silver pieces out of Hong Kong in the early 1900s. They are very scarce on the market today making this set very valuable. The fork handles are designed to look like bamboo shoots and each ends with a buddha carved from about 3 carats worth of jade. The back of the jade setting is stamped with Lee Yee Ming’s name and “90” signifying its silver amount. These are early pieces of the designer and date circa 1910. They are in excellent condition.
Appraised Value: $5,000.00
Our Price: $695.00
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