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The Silver Cup Episode

May 21st, 2010

As a result of writing a book, a number of unusual things have happened to me I suppose, things that might not have otherwise. One of the stranger things has to have been an email I received from an antiques dealer in the UK. He wrote explaining that he and his wife had come into the possession of an antique silver cup, and that I turned up on some China-related research.

I received details about their silver cup, which was engraved. Ten inches high and 5.5 inches wide, it weighed 25.5 troy ounces. The engraving indicated that the cup — a goblet, really — had been dedicated to someone named Midler who had either lived or passed through China in 1867. The resale value of an antique tends to increase with accompanying historical information, and so this British couple was interested in any information about a 19th century link.

1You can click on the image here for a larger view of the cup, and I’ll place a few thumbnails at the bottom, as well.

From the photos, you can make out a few details. Decorated with engraved bamboo leaves, the cup was dedicated to an “A. Midler, Esq.” It was given to this individual, “on his leaving China.” There are other markings, including the name of the engraver — Awing — and Chinese characters on the cup suggest that it was produced in Hong Kong. As was customary in those days, the characters were written from right to left (as opposed to the more common modern convention of left to right).

The Far East saw a large number of Jewish merchants in the 19th century, and so it might have been a possibility, but, no, I wrote to the antiques man and his wife, I had no reason to believe that relatives had ever been to China before I first set foot. Curious, I asked whether the cup might be for sale, and I got a price of 550 British Pounds (US$830).

It crossed my mind that there might be risk in a purchase, so I rang up the dealer directly to ask about assurances. The cup was guaranteed to be “sterling silver or better,” and the couple was willing to conduct a sale through eBay. I looked at the going rate for sterling, and the price for the cup wasn’t far above its “melt value”. Based on weight alone, it was close to what other silver objects sold for online anyway.

I sent details of the cup and my correspondence to friends and family. The response was universal: Everyone suspected a con. I tried to make the case why it might not be, but no amount of information or discussion could convince otherwise. For some reason, the very idea of the cup made people angry. One of my closest friends promised that she would never speak with me again if I was foolish enough to buy the thing. Of course, I had to laugh. As a China manufacturing specialist, I’ve done more than my fair of investigations, and on many projects, I make it my job to ferret out fraud. The reaction of these others was ironic. In this case, I was the only one thinking that the cup might be genuine when everyone else was certain it was a fake.

What a shame, I thought, because I imagined acquiring the piece and displaying it. I figured I might even take it on tour with me. When expatriate friends bragged about their early arrival in China, I would show them my sterling silver artifact and allow them to ponder the possibility that my ancestors had been through the region long before they were born.

The cup might be nonsense, I told one friend, but the antiques dealer and his wife were certainly not con artists. Never mind the good impression I had of the husband while speaking with him by phone. The couple’s eBay rating was 100% perfect; out of over one thousand transactions, not a single negative report had ever been filed! Had the antiques-dealing couple listed other silver pieces adorned with not-too-common surnames, I might have been forced to suspect they were the sort who prey on the desire among some to be associated with famous lineage. But this did not seem to be the case. The couple sold all kinds of silver items, most of them small and unremarkable.

Just as I trust my intuition, I believe my friends to have good instincts. In the end, I agreed with everyone that it was statistically unlikely that a “China antique” bearing my last name should appear on the market, and just as I’d completed a certain impolite book on China. Perhaps the cup was a joke — but initiated by whom? I did research and couldn’t come up with a single other example of a sterling silver cup given as a gift in the 19th century in China. This seemed important. If the cup had been a legitimate relic, strange that there should be no comparable items for sale anywhere.

I didn’t buy the cup, but I felt compelled to come to some sort of conclusion. If the cup was an attempt to defraud, profit didn’t seem to be the motive. There wasn’t enough margin to justify the long odds associated with only a remote possibility of a sale. The cup was probably fake, sure, but then it seemed to have found its way to a genuine antiques dealer. Why? In order to make the object appear more legitimate?  In the end, I wanted to buy it, but only because of the questions raised by such an unlikely fraud. If it really was a fake as the majority of those who heard of it have insisted to me, then why was it produced? Who would go to so much trouble?

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