Chinese Export Silver – Introduction & Valuations

What is Chinese export silver?

 

Chinese export silver was produced from the late 18th century to the early 20th century and traded from Canton.  Early Chinese export silver was made in the European style, but through the 19th century a unique elaborate style developed, featuring dragons and landscapes made to appeal to tourists.  Chinese export silver was made from melted Spanish trade dollars (the only currency allowed by Chinese merchants from foreign traders) so often tests as 90% silver.  

 

History of Chinese export silver 

 

Chinese export silver, originally bought by merchants trading with China via the port of Canton, is a rapidly expanding market with some items selling in excess of £50,000.  Although the Chinese had been making and exporting items made from silver from the early 18th century, it was not until 1965 that the first academic article was published on the subject (“China Trade in Silver,” John Devereux, Connoisseur, Nov 1965 p198). 

Twenty years ago it was not common for Chinese buyers to purchase export wares, these were after all items for European consumption and were often classed as secondary wares.  Fuelled by the increased number of fakes and the limited supply of Imperial wares, collectors are now seriously contesting export wares, of which Chinese export silver is one of the most sought after.

According to our research, the highest price paid for an item of export silver was a silver gilt teapot sold by Sotheby’s in 2008.  This hexagonal teapot was made during the reign of the emperor Kangxi in the early 18th century.  It sold for an astronomical £75,500 including commission.

This is the exception to the rule, but many items of Chinese export silver often sells between £1,000 and £5,000.  It is often forgotten that Chinese export silver was much cheaper than silver made in Europe, so it was brought back in huge numbers to the UK, American and Europe.

As with any market it is best to ‘buy low, sell high’.  The market for Chinese export silver has never been stronger.  Nor has the Chinese economy ever looked more fragile.  As such we would advise anyone with Chinese export silver to consign it for sale now.

We can advise the value of your Chinese export silver and help you find the best place to sell it, taking care of all the administration and logistics too.  So if you have an item of Chinese export silver and you would like a valuation please contact us for more information.

What is the value of Chinese export silver?


The value of your Chinese export silver depends on several factors:

  • Decoration style
  • Marks
  • Dragons
  • Forms
  • Provenance
  • Age

Each point will now be looked at in more detail.

Chinese Export Silver Tea Service
This ‘cover every surface’ style of decoration matches the Victorian aesthetic of the period.

Decoration style

The main era for Chinese export silver was circa 1800-1900.  The earliest pieces produced were made by Chinese silversmiths in the European style.  These pieces will be plain, maybe with engraved decoration, with the Chinese maker’s mark often being the only clue to its original origin.

The style of Chinese export silver later in the century was much more vigorous with decoration covering every surface except the base!  This marries in with the Victorian aesthetic of the time.  The ornately decorated items are the most sought after in the current market.

The most common decorative themes include dragons, landscapes with or without people, and filigree work.

Chinese export silver marks

Your piece of silver is likely to be marked on the base with either an English or Chinese character mark.  Not all pieces are marked however.

Chinese export silver was made from Spanish dollars (known as Eight Royals or Pieces of Eight) which was the only accepted currency when merchants were buying from the Chinese at Canton.  In fact, 290,000 tonnes of silver was exchanged since the middle of the 17th century for spices, silks, porcelain etc.  As the silver that was used to make Chinese export silver was made from a previously alloyed form of silver, there were no assay offices or other convention marks as there is with British silver.


There are three main types of marks on Chinese export silver.

  1. Chinese character marks
  2. English letters
  3. English pseudo hallmarks (imitating English hallmarks)

Many of the maker’s names such as Wing Nam, Wang Hing, Powying etc, are made up Western sounding names rather than the actual name of the silversmith. 

The best reference work is by H A Corsby Forbes as is available for around £200 on AbeBooks

We can identify the maker of your item if you are able to send over clear images of the marks.

Wang Hing Chinese Export Silver Mark
The maker’s mark for Wang Hing, active 1854-1930. The name Wang Hing and the mark are just pseudonyms which were easier to understand than their native names.
Spanish 8 Reales Coin
A Spanish 8 Reales coin, also known as a trade dollar, from which all Chinese export silver is made.
Detail of a chinese export silver bowl

Dragons

You may be wondering why dragons are so important.


In fact dragons are extremely important animals in Chinese culture and represented the emperor.


As the main buyers for Chinese export silver are now based in mainland China, it is their tastes that dictate value.  The dragon is by far the most commercial decorative element and if your piece of silver is decorated with a dragon it is worth more than had it been decorated with a landscape.


Tea services decorated with dragons in high relief (rather than being engraved) are very commercial.

Detail of dragon handles on a chines export silver bowl

Forms

Chinese export silver comes in almost every form imaginable.


The most common forms are mugs, tea services and card cases.

  • Mugs are often decorated with a continuous landscape and are often around 10-20cm high.
  • Tea services may number from three to six items, and those which are decorated with dragons being the most commercial.
  • Card cases were made in very large numbers and are often covered with continuous landscapes.

The most commercial items however are the larger more decorative items such as vases (very desirable), epergnes, bowls and cup and saucers (very rare).

A very rare chinese export silver vase
An enamelled chinese export silver tea service

Provenance

Owing to the British rule of Hong Kong from 1841-1997 large numbers of Chinese export silver was exported back to the UK from diplomats and dignitaries.

Chinese export silver was often used as testimonial plate: silver given in recognition of services, time spent with a company or as an award.

Some items are engraved with inscriptions relating to who the item was presented to, what their position was and quite often the date of the presentation.  Unlike English silver, presentation inscriptions do not affect value.

Age

Unlike the conception of English silver, older is not necessarily better.

As mentioned, the zenith of decoration on Chinese export silver was during the mid to late 19th century.  Items from this period are often the most prized as the silversmiths were reaching technical achievements seldom seen in English silver of the time.

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What is Chinese export silver?

 

Chinese export silver was produced from the late 18th century to the early 20th century and traded from Canton.  Early Chinese export silver was made in the European style, but through the 19th century a unique elaborate style developed, featuring dragons and landscapes made to appeal to tourists.  Chinese export silver was made from melted Spanish trade dollars (the only currency allowed by Chinese merchants from foreign traders) so often tests as 90% silver.  

What is Chinese Export Silver

What is the value of Chinese export silver?


The value of your Chinese export silver depends on several factors:

  • Decoration style
  • Marks
  • Dragons
  • Forms
  • Provenance
  • Age

Each point will now be looked at in more detail.

A chinese export silver tea service

Decoration style

The main era for Chinese export silver was circa 1800-1900.  The earliest pieces produced were made by Chinese silversmiths in the European style.  These pieces will be plain, maybe with engraved decoration, with the Chinese maker’s mark often being the only clue to its original origin.

The style of Chinese export silver later in the century was much more vigorous with decoration covering every surface except the base!  This marries in with the Victorian aesthetic of the time.  The ornately decorated items are the most sought after in the current market.

The most common decorative themes include dragons, landscapes with or without people, and filigree work.

Chinese export silver marks

Your piece of silver is likely to be marked on the base with either an English or Chinese character mark.  Not all pieces are marked however.

Chinese export silver was made from Spanish dollars (known as Eight Royals or Pieces of Eight) which was the only accepted currency when merchants were buying from the Chinese at Canton.  In fact, 290,000 tonnes of silver was exchanged since the middle of the 17th century for spices, silks, porcelain etc.  As the silver that was used to make Chinese export silver was made from a previously alloyed form of silver, there were no assay offices or other convention marks as there is with British silver.


There are three main types of marks on Chines export silver.

  1. Chinese character marks
  2. English letters
  3. English pseudo hallmarks (imitating English hallmarks)

Many of the maker’s names such as Wing Nam, Wang Hing, Powying etc, are made up Western sounding names rather than the actual name of the silversmith. 

The best reference work is by H A Corsby Forbes as is available for around £200 on AbeBooks

We can identify the maker of your item if you are able to send over clear images of the marks.

The Wang Hing chinese export silver mark

Dragons

You may be wondering why dragons are so important.


In fact dragons are extremely important animals in Chinese culture and represented the emperor.


As the main buyers for Chinese export silver are now based in mainland China, it is their tastes that dictate value.  The dragon is by far the most commercial decorative element and if your piece of silver is decorated with a dragon it is worth more than had it been decorated with a landscape.


Tea services decorated with dragons in high relief (rather than being engraved) are very commercial.

A chinese export silver bowl with dragon handles.

Forms

Chinese export silver comes in almost every form imaginable.


The most common forms are mugs, tea services and card cases.

  • Mugs are often decorated with a continuous landscape and are often around 10-20cm high.
  • Tea services may number from three to six items, and those which are decorated with dragons being the most commercial.
  • Card cases were made in very large numbers and are often covered with continuous landscapes.

The most commercial items however are the larger more decorative items such as vases (very desirable), epergnes, bowls and cup and saucers (very rare).

A rare chinese export silver enamelled silver tea service.

Provenance

Owing to the British rule of Hong Kong from 1841-1997 large numbers of Chinese export silver was exported back to the UK from diplomats and dignitaries.

Chinese export silver was often used as testimonial plate: silver given in recognition of services, time spent with a company or as an award.

Some items are engraved with inscriptions relating to who the item was presented to, what their position was and quite often the date of the presentation.  Unlike English silver, presentation inscriptions do not affect value.

Age

Unlike the conception of English silver, older is not necessarily better.

As mentioned, the zenith of decoration on Chinese export silver was during the mid to late 19th century.  Items from this period are often the most prized as the silversmiths were reaching technical achievements seldom seen in English silver of the time.

Free Chinese Export Silver Valuations

Are you looking for a valuation of your Chinese export silver?  If so, we can help.

Email details about your item to [email protected] or call us on 01477 410893

You can also click to send us a text

Alternatively, use the form to send us information about your item and we will reply with a valuation.

Chinese Export Silver Valuations