The vast majority of silverware in Thailand does not possess any reign or maker’s mark or other indicator as to date or place of manufacture. Most of the marks found are Chinese “chop marks”, stamped onto the underside of the silver object, perhaps with the aim of validating authenticity. Sometimes, the Chinese characters were transliterated into Thai from the Chaozhou dialect although this never became common practice.
The names of Thai silversmiths were almost never marked on their silverware. The mark may be the name of the silversmith, although just as likely that of the factory or atelier where he worked, or the retail firm that commissioned the product. There is very little information available in Thai or English about any of these firms, indeed whether they were the actual manufacturers or retail outlets, but most appear to have been operating in Bangkok, or to have delivered silver items to order in Bangkok, between 1850 and 1920. As there is scarcely any, or no, documentation about these entities, their location and the specific nature and make-up of each remain unknown.
Of all the marks identified in Thailand, silver items bearing the “Tan Yue He” mark are of outstanding quality; some objects, including a splendid silver gilt with blue enamel water-pot and stand and a pair of delightful silver gilt snuff bottles, were certainly made to palace order.
Excerpted from Thai Silver and Nielloware by Paul Bromberg (River Books, December 2018)
The firm was commissioned by members of the royal family to produce a variety of items that can be dated to the 1870s and 1880s. A pair of silver gilt snuff bottles, each bearing the “Tan Yue He” mark, was clearly made for Queen Sunanda Kumariratana (1860-1880), as these items are marked with her personal insignia. The tragic story of Queen Sunanda is well known in Thailand, as the beloved wife and first queen consort of King Rama V died in 1880 at the tender age of just nineteen. The royal boat carrying her and her entourage from Bangkok to the Royal Palace at Bang Pa-in capsized, and the queen and her daughter drowned despite the presence of several onlookers, who were unable to save them as they were forbidden, on pain of death, from touching any member of the royal family. King Rama V subsequently repealed this antiquated and perilous law.
It would appear that the Tan Yue He workshop hired only the finest silversmiths, assuming that an individual of this name did oversee production of each item himself. Today, silverware bearing this mark is the most sought after and commands the highest prices in the Thai marketplace. Indeed, the “Tan Yue He” mark has already attracted collectors in China, as Chinese dealers actively seek out silverware in Bangkok made by this workshop.
Although dating of Thai silverware is usually contentious, one silver water-pot with the “Tan Yue He” mark and an inscribed date has been found in Latin America. The water-pot, decorated in repoussé with a bird, flower and squirrel design, is inscribed on the base: “Palais de Siam, Exposition Universelle, Paris 1889”.
The Exposition Universelle was a world trade fair held from 6 May to 31 October 1889 at the vast architectural masterpiece, Galerie des Machines, in Paris, France. This was the third Exposition Universelle in Paris in which the Siamese government participated (after those of 1867 and 1878 respectively); the Siamese pavilion (Palais de Siam) was squeezed between the Japanese and Egyptian displays in the Palais des Industries Diverses.
More than thirty-two million people visited the Exposition, with many colonial artefacts on display, demonstrating the might of the Great European Powers. Ultimately, however, this was a trade show where each country in attendance presented a pavilion—the Thai kiosk having been sent in sections from Bangkok—to showcase its own artistic and utilitarian wares, such as silk, jewellery, gold and silverware, copper and ivory enamelware, musical instruments and gilded furniture, to satisfy the increasing European demand for exotic Oriental decorative arts. This “Tan Yue He” mark silver water-pot, presumably made in 1888 for shipment to Paris in time for May 1889, would have been one such item.
Paul Bromberg is the author of Thai Silver and Nielloware, a contributing editor of Arts of Asia magazine, and the editor of The Journal of the Siam Society.