The market for Chinese antique export silver is having a dramatic reversal of fortune. Export silver, as the name suggests, originally catered to a Western audience, and included royalty and aristocrats. Catherine the Great was an avid collector of Chinese export silver, as was Queen Charlotte, consort of George III, along with most European royal households, as well as maharajahs, potentates and wealthy banking families. New York's Tiffany & Co discovered China's export silver masters in Shanghai in the latter part of the 19th century, and commissioned pieces for its Fifth Avenue showrooms. Yet despite a lack of knowledge, and in many cases total ignorance, of the phenomenon, the roughly 200-year-long Chinese export silver market has become the most lucrative and desirable metallic category around.
Carlos Prata of Hanlin Gallery has been selling Chinese and Japanese export silver for 25 years. He says that, historically, European buyers chose Chinese silverwork because it was cheaper, with a touch of exoticism. "People could have items made as gifts. They bought holloware, flatware, trophies and minor things like pin trays and small boxes. Many were made for expats living in China."
Chinese export silver is split into two time periods. From 1750 to 1840, a system of small workshops in Shanghai manufactured silver pieces which were exact replicas of English silver. During the second phase, from 1850 to 1920, the new generation incorporated Chinese motifs, such as chrysanthemums and dragons, into their work.
Graphic designer Alan Chan has collected Chinese and Japanese export silver since the early 1980s. Starting with an oval-shaped silver dragon mirror he bought at Eastern Dreams on Hollywood Road, he now has more than 600 pieces. In 2006, Chan lent 200 pieces to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum.
The appeal of Chinese export silver for Chan is in the juxtaposition of cultures: "It illustrates the story of how two diverse nations communicated with each other. Products really became a medium for people from two different nations. On one hand, you want to express your culture, but at the same time, the foreign buyer needs to understand. So you find an angle they will … appreciate."
A large punch bowl made by Hong Kong-based Wang Hing is a prime illustration. Valued at about HK$1 million, it was made circa 1880 for a European buyer. Featuring an elaborate figurative scene - a design Westerners favoured - it was created using a labour-intensive repousse [in relief] or hammered technique.
"Some of the characters are named, so we know that it is a depiction of the Chinese classical novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms," says Prata.
"Prices for export silver have risen and regularly exceed estimates by five or six times. A three-piece tea set costs from HK$30,000 to HK$100,000. For about HK$10,000, you may get a small box or goblet. Large trophies go for hundreds of thousands of dollars."
Prata says the mainland buyer has affected the market in the past 10 years, especially on teaware prices. "Tea is important in China. Teaware was very inexpensive before: 20 years ago, I would've retailed a very good three-piece Chinese tea set for HK$15,000 to HK$20,000. Now the same set could easily sell for HK$80,000 to HK$100,000."
Mainlanders aren't buying the earliest Chinese export silver. "They're thinking you should buy the original Georgian silver," says Prata. "Why buy a Chinese version? The quality is lower."
That's good news for those with an academic or historical approach to collecting. "If you like it, it hasn't gone up in price so much. It is much rarer. You don't have a complete collection until you have an example from the early period," Prata says.
Good deals can also be found in Japanese silver. Prices have been quite flat recently. This is partly due to the Japanese economy and a lack of interest from mainland buyers. On the whole, emerging collectors start with their own culture first.
Prata calls Japanese craftsmen "the finest metalworkers in the world". They made swords for millennia and when the samurai class was abolished, they turned to the export business, he explains. They always used sterling or even higher quality metal in their work.
Chan, who estimates his silver collection is 40 per cent Japanese and 60 per cent Chinese, says: "Japanese silver is more exquisite than Chinese silver. The artistic sensitivity is higher."
Correction: The story was updated at 3:00pm February 25 to correct, in the 4th paragraph, the number of pieces Alan Chan lent to the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in 2006 from "20" to "200".