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Posted March 6, 2013 | comments Leave a comment

Richard Hoover: Silver loot twice taken

By Richard Hoover

Onward with our mighty theme: Great Antiques are the ones that best rocket the beholder into the sacred past!

Our 9-inch-tall time traveler is a late 19th century goblet from Wang Hing, the Hong Kong maker of top quality silver and a supplier to Tiffany and Company. So, put on your best traditional Chinese outfit, your bowling shoes and shoulder your Krag U.S. rifle - this silver rocket is taking us not to one, but to multiple pasts.

The base, stem and cup are a profusion of roots, trunks and shoots of the hardy and ubiquitous bamboo. Why? What on earth were Chinese silver smiths and engravers thinking?

Well, it is said that bamboo symbolizes Chinese cultural values far better than any animal, mineral or other vegetable. Bamboo-born values include tranquility, longevity, simplicity, strength, flexibility and even harmonious family relations. Each claims its origin in what might be described as peculiar bamboo behavior.

On bamboo and family harmony, for example, the website "Living Arts Originals" tells us that "The young branches at the top of the bamboo trunk will not grow at the same angle as the older branches below, in order to allow sunlight for their elders. When the young shoots emerge from the roots, they are under the shade of the older bamboo branches. Such a spirit reflects the young respecting the old as well as the old protecting the young (!)"

Bamboo motifs seem to appear on most Wang Hing pieces: goblets, cups, silverware, services, caddies, bowls, boxes, perfumeries, candle holders and figurines. One wonders if American Wang Hing consumers appreciate bamboo profusions as a symbol and carrier of Chinese culture. Did bamboo embellishments help to create for the Astors, Guggenheims and Mellons the uplifting ambience that Chinese craftsmen and exporters intended?

The other pasts that mark our goblet came from Iloilo, the steamy Spanish port town and provincial capita situated on the Philippine island of Panay. The first of its engraved lines proclaims:

Iloilo Kegel Club Champion Handicap September 1898
Iloilo was home to great powers; Americans, Brits and Germans, for example, were on hand with their respective consular missions, commercial warehouses, residences and businesses. It's safe to say such an isolated diplomatic and money-making community of western expatriates had led a rip-roaring life, to which the Iloilo Kegel Club must have contributed. Based largely on the ancient German game of skittles, and turned into a world sport by German immigrants to Australia late in the century, kegel bowling - bowling for tenpins - became the rage. How else to explain the awarding of a genuine Wang Hing to a lowly handicap tourney champ?

Nevertheless, the times were dramatically changing. In 1896, native insurgents under Emilio Aguinaldo attacked the colonial Spanish Authority. Peace was restored the following year, but rebellion resumed when the Spanish-American war broke out in 1898, with Alguinaldo siding with the Americans. In 1899, Aguinaldo would turn against the victorious American occupying forces.

In August 1898 (one month before our trophy was awarded to the Iloilo Kegel Club champ), Manilla surrendered to the Americans. Spanish Governor-General of the Philippines Diego de Los Rios removed his troops to Iloilo. An island uprising in October thwarted his plans to surrender to the Americans. In December, the Spaniards were forced to evacuate Iloilo. Their surrender to the insurgents followed, marking the end of centuries of Spanish rule over the Philippines. Pouring into Iloilo, the insurgents took over the Spanish fort and barracks. Looting commenced.

To satiate what some of my fellow guest columnists might describe as imperialist and expansionist ambition, American forces moved upon Iloilo on Feb. 11, 1899. According to the colorful two-volume history "Deeds of Valor" (1901), the opening bombardment touched off redoubled insurgent looting and arson. Consulates, warehouses, residential and business properties and, no doubt, the Iloilo Kegel Club with them, went up in smoke. Supported by the warships Boston and Petrel, American troops landed.

"The men from the Boston immediately took the (insurgent) fort, hauling down the Filipino flag and hoisting the Stars and Stripes amid the cheers from the ships."

The final lines engraved on the goblet:


For romantics and antiquaries living in the past, dwelling all day in castles of their imagination, what can possibly stir the blood more than a tale of silver loot twice taken - first by insurgents and then by American forces?

For any guest columnist on antiques, what can be more exciting than fathoming an old object, uncovering its essence, its living soul? But we are not yet done: the Iloilo goblet was once in Warren County. It turned up years ago at an estate sell-off, deep in the wilds off Mountain Road. Venerated by a mother and her Vietnam veteran son, it had descended within their family of U.S. Army colonels and general officers, within a military family that had fought prominently in the Civil War, the Spanish American War, both World Wars, Korea and Vietnam.

Richard Hoover is a retired Foreign Service officer who resides in southern Warre n County. Growing up near Cleveland, he was raised with antiques from the beginning and introduced early to shops, shows and auctions. He lectures on subjects ranging from Benjamin West and the Venetian Empire to Christian art and American Revolutionary War engravings.

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