China Trade Silver

A little-known cargo in early U.S.-China trade

China's accession to the World Trade Organization and the global shift in sourcing have catapulted that country's standing among trading nations. China's exports of consumer and industrial goods to the United States are widely recognized for their quality, and their value approaches $300 billion annually (2006).

But today's mass-produced exports from China pale aesthetically when compared to the superbly crafted silver treasures that were made by that country's finest silversmiths and found their way to the West in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, and even into the first three decades of the 20th Century.

The present collection of this little-known work is an outgrowth of our interest in the history of U.S.-China shipping (see Pacific Mail Steam Ship Company) and in the Chinese export arts.

Marked with the "Lombardic (or Gothic) H" for Hoaching, and ideogram for Shan (Skilful), this covered cup stands 14" high. It's a veritable celebration of fine Chinese workmanship, featuring key fret, beading, gadrooning, spiral fluting, deep embossing (repousse), flat chasing, gilded interior, and more. Made ca.1860, it was presented in 1869 in Canton to A E Meyer, Esq.(biographical data pending). Hoaching worked in Canton from 1850-70. Click to see interior.
Might these two tablespoons be the earliest documented examples of China Trade silver to come to America? Made by Powing (Pao-Ying) of Canton, they bear the monogram of William and Mary (Quincy) Donnison and the date 1783 --the year the Donnisons married. That was two years before the sailing ship "Empress of China" returned from her pioneering voyage to China. Donnison, Adjutant in Elliot's Artillery Regiment (Rhode Island) in 1776, was later Adjutant General in Boston. Click on either picture to enlarge.
Repousse silver claret ewer given in 1873 by Hoo Ah Kay Whampoa, who arrived in Singapore in 1830 from Whampoa, and became China's and Japan's first Consul to Singapore. Recipient was Bernard Rodyk, co-founder of Singapore's oldest law firm. Gilded interior, dragon handle, 100 court and military figures.
Silver goblet made ca. 1854 by Cutshing (CU + pseudo hallmarks). Inscribed Theodore F. (for Frelinghuysen) Lewis, a New York-based China trader who sailed to China about 1854 aboard the clipper ship N.B. Palmer. Rare silver technique, probably ajoure sheathing.
Supported by three cranes, compote was made in Hong Kong ca. 1860-70. Marks of Sunshing (S.S) and ideogram for Hui. Standing 9-3/4" high, this piece was on the cover of Silver Magazine's feature edition on Chinese Export Silver, March-April 2002.
Oval teapot made by Sunshing (SS) in Canton, ca. 1780, for American market. Bears a beaded edge and bright-cut family crest (lion standing). A closely related teapot is held by the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. This example bears a unique pineapple-form finial.

Getting from there, to here

The pieces in which we are interested range from early hollowware and flatware of British and American form and design, bearing pseudo hallmarks, to ornate centerpieces or tea services of Victorian fantasy, often embellished with dragons or other Chinese motifs that characterized the pieces made in the mid- and later nineteenth century.

This silver, while known as Chinese Export Silver (CES), was not really made for export (as were the porcelains, ivories, fine silks, teas and furniture), as Dr. Crosby Forbes, Curator Emeritus for the Export Arts at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, points out. The silver was commissioned or purchased by trading company officials, by sea captains calling at the treaty ports, and later by diplomats and other personnel visiting or stationed in China. The silver came to the U.S. in sailing ships and, after 1867, aboard the steamers of the San Francisco-based Pacific Mail Steam Ship Company and other lines that carried passengers and freight to and from China.

Rediscovering a lost art

Students of this collecting field refer to Chinese Export Silver (CES), or "China Trade Silver," as a once-lost art. Why? Many 18th and 19th Century pieces were later inherited by generations of Americans, who presumed their silver to be of English or early-American manufacture. The rediscovery that China's silversmiths had been turning out exquisite works for Westerners during the China Trade period was an evolving process.

It was only in the 1970s -- thanks to the scholarly research of H. A. Crosby Forbes, John Devereux Kernan and Ruth S. Wilkins, who co-authored Chinese Export Silver 1785 to 1885 (Milton, Massachusetts: Museum of the American China Trade, 1975), that scholars, collectors and dealers got an in-depth look at the range of Chinese Export Silver production that had been identified and studied in this country.

In 1985, another landmark work, The Chait Collection of Chinese Export Silver by John Devereux Kernan, was published by Chait Gallery of New York City on the occasion of its 75th anniversary.

Despite these and other important works by Carl L. Crossman, Alan James Marlowe, and Neville John Irons, the fact that China produced such extraordinary silver for Westerners during the China Trade period has long been one of the best-kept secrets in silver collecting.

The CES field continues to evolve

Today, interest is growing steadily, and collecting has spread beyond the Western market. In an article called "Background Notes - Chinese Export Silver" in the March-April 2002 issue of Silver Magazine, which featured a collectors' forum on CES, we pointed out that -- in a relatively new development -- even Chinese collectors are beginning to hunt for fine pieces of CES that come onto the market.

The article reported that one early dealer of Chinese export silver in Asia, Glenn Vessa in Hong Kong, began offering CES pieces after his first trip to China in 1975. Mr. Vessa has found that interest by local and mainland Chinese dealers and collectors has matured to the point that some now collect only specific makers, or only pieces produced in specific Chinese cities. He added, "Price doesn't seem to be a major consideration."

I would say that an eager, sharp-eyed hunter can still find the occasional China Trade silver piece (some more exciting than others) at national, regional and even local auctions and antiques fairs, and it also turns up in the occasional local antique shop. CES is often priced below comparable English or American silver because, even today, it is not widely recognized. Serious collectors develop networks of dealers and other experts.

The Silver Magazine issue cited above included an important new essay by Crosby Forbes. It also included comments about the field by other collectors and specialists. Back copies may be purchased by email request to We believe this issue, which provides new information and observations about the CES field, has played a role in further increasing knowledge and interest in Chinese export silver. For this contribution, Silver Magazine and its indefatigable editor at that time, Connie McNally, are applauded.

Your Comments Invited

If you have interesting comments and/or images to share, we will be happy to post them or communicate with you individually. One of the goals of this site is to stimulate dialogue and exchange of new information in the field. Please email

DEDICATION - This section of the Potash & Company Web site is warmly dedicated to Dr. H.A. Crosby Forbes, Curator Emeritus for Asian Export Art, Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Dr. Forbes continues to support the work of his dynamic successor, William R. Sargent, who is significantly expanding the collections and the museum's outreach. Scion of an early China Trade family himself, Dr. Forbes developed the Captain Forbes House Museum dedicated to the China Trade arts near Boston, now a National Landmark, and many of its CES holdings were later transferred to the Peabody. He is the universally acknowledged scholar and leading authority on CES; an author of the landmark work, Chinese Export Silver 1775-1885 (copies can be obtained through the Peabody at; and treasured mentor and friend. -- Steve Potash
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