Following a blossoming of interest in the 1960s, Chinese export silver has never been more collectible than it is today. The demographics of the market, however, have changed. The days of American collectors ruling the roost has given way to Chinese collectors, demonstrating their willingness to out-pay and outbid all others.
The definition of these wares is quite limited in scope: items using silver mined in China, as well as silver acquired through the opium trade, maritime trade, and through Western flatware and foreign currency. With material originating from varied sources, the standard purity of Chinese export silver ranges from about .840 to .980, unlike Sterling which is consistently .925.
The span of manufacturing of the more collectible examples of Chinese export silver extends from the last quarter of the 18th century to the early 20th century, with roughly fifty known makers. Forms include tea ware and hollowware, vases and urns, goblets, candlesticks, flatware, card cases, boxes, and much more. Export silver became more commercial in quality after the first quarter of the 20th century, but production in older styles continues.
Most pieces are repoussé in the round with scenes of dragons, figures in courtyard settings, battle scenes, and of a variety of vegetation. Most have hallmarks, some with Chinese characters, and many bearing the name of a silversmith firm or retail shop. Early on, silversmiths adopted the practice of stamping their pieces with pseudo-English hallmarks, possibly derived from flatware brought by foreign travelers to be copied by local craftsmen. As time went by, these hallmarks became more abbreviated into Western-style initials, and the examples sometimes bear the place of manufacture such as Canton, Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Beijing.
Many examples are engraved. Because of strong maritime trade, captains and crews often stayed for two to three months before returning, so numerous cups and bowls bear names, dates, and occasions including milestones, sporting tournaments, and as presentations for notable events.
Desirability and quality go hand in hand. The pieces showing the highest definition to faces, buildings, and foliage are in far greater demand than those with softer details. Prices overall can span, for small boxes, napkin rings, and novelties from $200-500, to large and elaborate urns and vases in the $20,000-40,000 range.
For further exploration, there are several good books and catalogs on the subject including Chinese Export Silver by H.A. Crosby Forbes, The Silver Age – Origins and Trade of Chinese Export Silver at Hong Kong Maritime Museum, and The Chait Collection of Chinese Export Silver, and information can also be found in old auction catalogs and records of permanent exhibitions at a variety of institutions including the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.