J.A. sends me photos of a lovely silver multi-formed epergne (flower holder) with the unique hallmark “Tuck Chang,” a 19th century silversmith from Shanghai, China. When we think of silver, we think of England, stamped with those sets of hallmarks. Yet Chinese Export silver has a long 18th, 19th, and 20th century pedigree, and is usually heavy and ornate with Chinese motifs: bamboo accents, dragons, and T’ap-p’o (the Chinese form of Pagoda). This piece is a great example of the cross fertilization of early trade in the decorative arts.
These designs will often seem fanciful creations of the Western idea of China; Western tourists purchased souvenirs understandable to the European eye from shops in Canton, Hong Kong and Shanghai. Wealthy Chinese buyers didn't fancy this silver made for tourists.
Much Chinese export silver lined the ballast of ships returning to Europe and America, and those ships took weeks to get to ports in the West; likewise, tourists to China in the 19th century spent about a month sailing to China and stayed much longer than our modern two-week vacations. In fact, wealthier tourists came with the intention of staying in China long enough to have a massive tea and coffee service custom handcrafted by Chinese silversmiths.
However, by the dawn of the 20th century, even the Chinese hand-crafters discovered mass production, and instead of a custom handmade repoussé tea set, with just your idea of a Chinese tea party pictured upon the teapot, silver was made in recognizable patterns. Therefore, 20th century Chinese export silver is in less demand and of lesser value than 19th century pieces.
Notice I don't describe this material as sterling. It's not, it's silver, and the silver content in the mixture differs from maker to maker. Some of the best makers mixed metals with silver to come close to 925/1000 (sterling) as possible. Regarding hallmarks, you can see Anglicized maker’s names written in English, like on J.A.’s epergne, (“Tuck Chang”), but you can also find what looks exactly like British forms, such as Georgian style rat-tail dessertspoons, bearing pseudo-British hallmarks. Look closely to see the Chinese maker’s name in the typical four “touch” marks common to English assay markings; Wong Shing (Canton, 1810-35) is known for these “pseudo” touches. For the American market, Chinese silversmiths stayed away from the popular British Georgian shapes, and appropriated the famous “fiddlehead and shell” pattern of the mid 19th century.
I was surprised to find flatware forms made in the late 19th century, unknown to a Chinese table at that time, such as turkey “stuffing spoons” and a gravy “strainer” spoon, and services that would've set a Chinese diner into a quandary, such as an eight cup set of boiled egg servers on a handled round stand. Also I found a Chinese export vinaigrette. A vinaigrette, pioneered in the 16th century, used until the 19th century, protected a lady’s sensitive nose against the daily stenches of early city life. In those days even the Thames was a sewer and clothes were hardly ever washed, let along the bodies underneath. A small silver box with a grill in the middle held a sponge laced with vinegar, herbs and spices. By the way, if you needed stench protection and couldn't afford silver, lower class ladies made a ball of gum pounded with rose water, apple pulp and wax to hang on the front of their bodice. This small box of silver for Chinese export is an example of a European form made in China for Western habits and fashions.
J.A.’s epergne is a similar white elephant. A formal Chinese dining area never boasted an epergne. And people don't see them today, unless they set a very fancy period-throwback table. If J.A. does, J.A. could use it for two purposes on her dining table, or combine these two uses. She might place flowers in each of the “buds,” or she could place “sweetmeats,” like sweet delicacies of sugar and honey, with candied fruit, nuts, sugarplums or bonbons into the buds. If she wanted a showy table, she might set the epergne with flowers accented with candy sticks. Along with silver bride’s baskets for receiving calling cards after a bride is betrothed, this silver form has gone the way of my porcelain fancy gold-rimmed formal holiday china, which my married son swears he will never countenance in his house. The value of J.A.’s epergne, depending on the troy weight, is approximately $500.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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