Beautiful Heirlooms From the Rattanakosin-Era
Among the primordial elements bedded in the subterranean chambers of the earth, silver has been entwined with the history and cultural heritage of humankind since the prehistoric age, a fact ratified by the discovery of silver artifacts older than recorded history.
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The properties of silver are as follows: it is a lustrous, white metal, the second highest valued after gold, which it out-rivals in tensile strength. Since silver shines when polished, it became the preferred material out of which to forge objects of value– autobiographies of history’s first silversmiths. Over time, embossing (salak dun in Thai), a decorative technique in which designs are raised in relief on a surface, evolved into artisanal traditions that produced the sacred accouterments used in royal ceremonies and the personal effects availed by the sovereign. These objects have outlasted the heaven-sent rulers they were made for to transmit the tastes and cultural contexts of their time to later generations, thousands of years later. Many cultures across the world, from Europe to India, believed silver to have divine properties.
The production of silver handicrafts in the region comprising present-day Thailand began in the Dvaravati period (7th – 11th century A.D.), when the ancient Dvaravati kingdom situated on the lower Chao Phraya River and centered in Nakhon Pathom, with settlements radiating out into surrounding areas, when the pitcher carrying the alluvial waters of Indian cultural traditions tipped over and spilled into Indochina. Silver coins were used to buy and sell goods, and pay off debt, before the Sukhothai period (807 – 1224 AD). Throughout the Ayutthaya period (1350 – 1767 AD), the patrician class collected household effects made of silver, some gifted by the king, as tokens of status. By the late Ayutthaya period (1448 – 1767 AD), flourishing trade and the kingdom’s prosperity increased spending power among the mercantile class, which also began to acquire silver pieces.
Between the reigns of King Rama 2 – 4 (1809 – 1868 AD) in the early Rattanakosin period, China became a major trading partner of the Siamese kingdom, and the influx of Chinese commodities and crafts precipitated paradigm shifts in fashions and consumption patterns. Across an array of imported products, from artisanal woodworking to furniture, Chinese silver became one of the hallmarks of the new zeitgeist. Commissions for silver pieces destined for the Siamese market kept afire day and night the smitheries of Shanghai and their legions of Chinese artisans– whose style and craft had gained a reputation as the exemplar of high-quality silver and become codified as the “Shanghai school”.
Though the work of the silversmiths of Shanghai had the kind of currency among the Siamese public of the 19th Century that Cartier’s jewelry does today, there are many other silversmithing traditions that developed in different regions of the world. In Thailand, the silver handicrafts of the north (Chiangmai school) and the south (Nakhon Si Thammarat school) are prized for their beauty. Beyond Siamese borders, there are the Luang Pra Bang and Vientiane schools in Laos, the Phnom Penh school in Cambodia and the Sibsong Panna school in the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture of Yunnan, as well as Nepalese and Vietnamese silver handicrafts– not to mention Europe’s silversmithing traditions.
The unique properties of silver and its entanglement in the trajectory human history imbues the impeccable craftsmanship of Shanghainese artisans with an esoteric glamor not achieved by chemical means alone. These artifacts are treasured by connoisseurs who know that they sit enthroned upon the intersection of beauty, rarity and value.
Two specimens from the venerable Shanghai school grace the catalog of RCB Auctions’ upcoming Live Auction, commencing at 12:30 PM on 6 May 2023 at our auction house on the 4th floor of River City Bangkok.
Experience their ethereal beauty in-person with a visit to RCB Auctions during preview period from now until 5 May 2023. Our opening hours are 10:00 AM – 6:00 PM during previews.
Lot 71: A very fine silver teapot with an upright handle, carved in relief with a scene from Chinese literature (1 pc.)
Dimensions: W 18.5 cm H 14 cm weight 702 gram
Circa: Early 20th Century
Lot 72: A very fine silver tea set comprising a teapot, milk jug and sugar pot each simulating bamboo section handle, decorated in relief with bamboo groves issuing from rockwork (1 set (3 pcs.))
Dimensions: W 16 cm H 12 cm weight 618 gram
Circa: Early 20th Century