Chinese Export Silver includes pieces that are in a pure Chinese style and form, those which are a hybrid of European form and Chinese motifs and those which are wholly of European form and decoration. Chinese Export silver was initially purchased by European tourists and travellers during the 18th and early 19th centuries. Some fine filigree and enamel objects, in the Chinese style, date from this time. As trade between East and West increased, items such as bosuns’ whistles were popular with visiting sea captains and sailors, who soon realised that commissioning silver in China was much cheaper than in their home countries. They began to order copies of European and American silver objects to take back as presents or to resell for a profit. Some of the earliest items commissioned were in plain Georgian style, completely western in form and overall appearance and almost indistinguishable from similar articles being produced in England at this time. With the rapid rise in the number of merchants and travellers visiting China during the mid-nineteenth century, Chinese silver became ever more popular in Europe and the United States. Large amounts of silverware were brought back as ballast on the merchant ships, forming an additional and very profitable secondary cargo. Card cases, tankards and tea services, of generalised European form but with Chinese elements such as dragon lids and handles, were elaborately, almost over decorated, in the Chinese taste. This is a style sometimes referred to as ‘High Chinese’ and was very popular at this time. The first quarter of the twentieth century saw a sharp rise in the fortunes of many Chinese businessmen, an elite class who had made vast amounts of money from trade and speculation. Some had also been educated in Europe or the USA and preferred to dress in European style and live in a similar manner to the Europeans living in Hong Kong and within the International Settlements in China. The Chinese ‘new rich’ were also purchasing silverware such as cocktail shakers and ice buckets for their own domestic use, as were the ex-patriot community, with near identical items destined for overseas export. Among the notable collectors of Chinese silver were; Catherine the Great, Empress of Russia and Queen Charlotte, wife of King George III of England, some Indian Maharajahs and many wealthy European and American families.
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