Tips of the Trade
Stuart Slavid talks Chinese silver to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW host Dan Elias.
Chinese silver was often custom-made.
This piece of Chinese silver has a dragon for a handle.
English hallmarks make Chinese silver easy to identify.
Chinese Silver: Another World
For collectors, the word "silver" might bring to mind an English tea set or a Continental soup tureen or maybe a patriotic silver tankard by Paul Revere. Less familiar to collectors is a world of silver that is not Western, but Chinese. Chinese export silver was made for Western tourists in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries, featuring designs that include Chinese dragons rather than Western motifs such as goats and grapes.
Precious advice: An expert offers tips on a lesser-known Chinese craft of centuries past
"With the China trade, tourists were coming to China and they loved to shop," explains Stuart Slavid, director of fine ceramics at Skinner, Boston. "They would go to trading centers such as Canton, Hong Kong, and Shanghai. Many of the ships returning home took silver as well as tourists."
All Chinese silver was made by hand, with its elaborate designs hammered out by master Chinese craftsmen. The silver depicts flowers, birds, landscapes, dragons and human figures, the patterns that collectors seek out most often. Since Europeans would spend weeks or months aboard ship to travel to China, they would often spend months there. That was long enough to choose a pattern that could be custom-made while they holidayed. "Many of the pieces you see for sale today were made to order," Stuart says. "It was primarily for foreigners. The elaborate designs of most of the export silver weren't to the Chinese tastes."
In the early 20th century, much more Chinese silver was exported and many more tourists visited the vast country than ever before. To meet the boosted demand, Chinese silver became mass-produced. "Their silver turned into cookie-cutter pieces," Stuart explains, more a tourist- than master craft.
Stuart adds that Chinese silver was largely a "hidden secret" until the publishing in 1975 of the book Chinese Export Silver, 1785 to 1885, by H.A. Crosby Forbes, John Kernan, and Ruth S. Wilkins. After that book was published, silver and China collectors began to search out Chinese export silver, especially the earlier works.
"Museums have gobbled up most of the earlier Chinese silver," Stuart notes. "More people are now interested in the field and it's a challenge to find." Much of what's available to collectors today is the late 19th- and early 20th-century Chinese silver, Stuart notes, much of it still of high quality.
Stuart says that a nice Chinese silver tea set can cost a few thousand and a one-of-a-kind trophy piece can fetch between $10,000 and $25,000. Yet, Stuart says that collectors on the lookout can find small decorative cabinet pieces for under $500.
Easy to Identify
It's important to note that the Chinese did not use the same standard of silver that was used in the West, so silver content is not something buyers need to consider. "Every piece might have a different level of purity," Stuart says, but that doesn't affect the value of any particular piece.
Another nice thing about Chinese export silver is that it uses English hallmarks. "They make it very easy to distinguish the different makers," Stuart says. "Nobody knows exactly who suggested the Chinese use the English marks but it's been a tremendous aid to many today."
Chinese silver is also a specialty that has very few fakes. "I don't think collectors really have to be concerned about that in the same way they do in other silver markets," Stuart assures collectors. While there are a few books that offer guidance, Stuart notes that the best way to make sure that what you're getting is real is to work with someone you trust.
For more on Chinese silver Stuart Slavid recommends:
Chinese Export Silver, 1785 to 1885, by H.A. Crosby Forbes, John Kernan, and Ruth S. Wilkins, 1975.
The Chait Collection of Chinese Export Silver, by John Devereux Kernan, 1985.
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.