11176 A RARE SERIES OF THREE PAKTONG VASES Chinese. Second Half Of The Eighteenth Century. Measurements: Vase A- Height: 14 1/2″ (36.8 cm) Diameter: 10 1/4″ (26 cm) Vase B- Height: 13 3/4″ (35 cm) Diameter: 10 1/2″ (26.7 cm) Vase C- Height: 17″ (43.2 cm) Diameter: 12 1/4″ (31 cm)
Of paktong. Each of ‘gu’ form with a flared lip above a rounded body with stepped shoulder, resting on a stepped domed foot.
Paktong is an alloy of copper, nickel and zinc that originated in China, where it was used as early as the 12th century, and was exported to the West in the 18th and 19th centuries. Its name is an Anglicization of the Cantonese pronunciation “Bai tong” for the Mandarin characters meaning “white copper.”
The ores of paktong were mined and smelted in the provinces of Sichuan and Yunnan. Old accounts refer to a “blue ore,” identified as pentlanite embedded in olivine, which contains nickel, and “yellow ore,” which may be chalcopyrite and/or cuprite, containing copper.1 Zinc was also added to the alloy, giving it the silvery-white color and improving its malleability.2
The alloying of zinc was no small exercise. Rather than smelting it together with the copper and nickel, it was added by a process called sublimation, the transition of a solid directly to a gas, bypassing the liquid phase. First, the copper alloy was heated made and into thin sheets. These were then suspended above a vapor of zinc. The zinc would penetrate and fuse to the copper, and when the maximum amount had been absorbed, the sheets were put into melting pots for further refinement.
The earliest known artifact made in paktong is a cast weight in the collection of the Museum of Chinese History in Beijing, dating to 1187 AD, and records from the Ming and Qing dynasties alert us to the mining of white copper and factories for smelting the alloy in from 15th-17th centuries. Paktong was being exported to other parts of Asia before the end of the seventeenth century, as evidenced by contemporary travel journals such as The Travels of Monsieur de Thevenot into the Levant (1686), in which the author states “There is in this town [Delhi], a certain metal called teutunac,3 that looks like Tin, but is much more lovely and fine, and is often taken for Silver; that Metal is brought from China.”4
By the 18th century, the accounts of Westerners begin to make references to goods fashioned from the alloy. Objects in paktong appeared in Europe in a number of ways. Pieces were made in China, in both European and traditional styles, for sale at Canton to East India Company officers and other foreigners in the area. Alternatively, the alloy was sent as a raw material to be worked by European craftsmen. In 1766 Matthew Boulton, the celebrated English industrialist and metalworker, requested quantities of the alloy5 for experimentation and by the 1770s his Soho Manufactory was producing goods in paktong. Some items were made in China in the Western style specifically for direct export to Europe, however, contemporary records and the number of extant pieces indicate that this was not as common.6
Different ratios of copper, nickel and zinc produce variations in the color of paktong wares. “Matthew Boulton’s colleague James Keir made the point that only the better Chinese white copper has a very silvery aspect and that the inferior sort is close to the colour of brass.”7The first accurate analysis of the material was published in 1776 by a Swedish chemist named Gustav Engeström. He outlined its various metallic components and concluded that the alloy could be produced in Europe,8 however, it was never fully successfully imitated. The closest comparison developed in the 19th century and bears the name ‘German silver,’ however the compositional ratios of the alloys differ from what is generally accepted as true Paktong.
The present vases are of a form known as ‘gu,’ which means ‘ancient,’ and are of quite a large size, the tallest measuring just over 17 inches tall. Like the present examples, a pair of closely related vases of 13 inches in height are with the English art trade, and are dated circa 1740-60 (figure 1). A pair of smaller but similarly shaped vases dated to circa 1772 are illustrated in Paktong: The Chinese Alloy in Europe 1680-1820 (Pinn, 1999, p.44) (figure 2). Among the other domestic wares fashioned from paktong in the early 18th century we find tea and coffee pots, candlesticks, firegrates, and furniture mounts. One of the rarest items, a chandelier, was sold at Sotheby’s New York, April 19-20, 2001.
- Pinn, Keith. Paktong: The Chinese Alloy in Europe, 1680-1820. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, 1999. 34.
- “Teutunac” in this case refers to tutenag, the Indian word for zinc. It was also referred to in a further corrupt iteration as “tooth and egg.” Over time tutenag was confused with paktong.
- Pinn, 44.
- Ibid., 51.
- Ibid., 45.
- Ibid., 60.
- Ibid., 33.