London-based author, gallerist and collector Michael Backman has produced a large and comprehensively-researched book Malay Silver and Gold: Courtly Splendour from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand (River Books, 2024) in which he tells the story of Malay silver and gold produced in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in so doing, tells the story of the Malays through these media. The book is richly illustrated with 475 colour photographs of silver and gold items, most of which have never before been published.

He speaks exclusively about his book and his collecting with WorldArtNow. 

Q: Why did you feel there was a need for this book?

A: There has been a lot of ignorance and misunderstanding about the beautiful silver and goldwork produced by the Malay people. There has never been a comprehensive book on this topic published and the last book ostensibly on the topic, by an Englishman Henry Ling Roth, Oriental Silverwork – Malay and Chinese was published in 1910. It is not a great book but because it was published a long time ago, everyone assumes that its contents are correct. In fact, Roth never travelled to the Malay world, he based his book on a handful of collections that had been built up literally over a few years at around the turn of the century and which had been brought to England, and which had been built up only on the Malay Peninsula, so from only a very small part of the Malay world. Additionally, too many items have appeared in books and in museum collections described as Malay but which I came to understand were not, and then other types of gold and silver which hitherto have not been recognised as Malay or even from Southeast Asia, I recognised with my research that they were in fact Malay.

Q: The book is not about Malaysia and its silver and gold, but the Malays and their silver and gold. Can you explain the difference? 

A: There is a big difference. The Malay world encompasses a much broader area than just Malaysia. Other than Malaysia, there are Malays in the coastal regions of Sumatra, Borneo, southern Thailand and Singapore, hence the subtitle ‘Courtly Splendour from Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Thailand.’ Plus there were small groups of Malays further afield such as Sulawesi in Eastern Indonesia and there is plenty of evidence that they were involved in silver and goldsmithing there. This, plus Malay influence on the gold and silver of other groups such as the Acehnese, the Bugis and the Minangkabau needs to be better appreciated. There is even Malay influence to be found on the silverware of the Arabs of southern Yemen!

Q: You are not Malay but you have written this book rather than a Malay. How do you feel about that?

A: Well of course, there is nothing to stop someone who is Malay from writing such a book, but so far in a hundred years that hasn’t happened. For me personally, I have such admiration for Malay culture, for the traditional generosity and hospitality of the Malays, and for the sheer beauty of the Malay aesthetic and particularly that of the Malay silversmith, that it seemed natural for me to write this book.

Sometimes, I think it is easier for an outsider to write about a topic than it is for an insider because you are starting from scratch – you must look at the facts and your facts are not influenced by ‘common’ knowledge or by mis-remembered family traditions or lore. The other issue when it comes to Malay silver and goldware is that today, few Malays actually possess significant holdings of it. Much of it was sold off by Malay families in the late 19th and early 20th centuries largely because they had other priorities – it was no longer in fashion, they wanted to sell it to fund a haj visit, or to pay for their children’s education, for example. This coincided with the great interest in Victorian-era collecting on the part of Europeans and so much of the gold and silver that hadn’t been melted down ended up mostly in the UK and the Netherlands, bought by the English, Scots and Dutch from Malays who no longer wanted it, and so it is Europe that much Malay silver and goldware can be accessed today rather than in the Malay world itself.

Q: What were some important elements in your research?

A: Traditional Malay silversmithing had largely ceased more than a hundred years ago, despite attempts to revive it. Certainly, as a court art it had completely disappeared by then. So accounts of Malay silver and gold that were contemporary with its production were very important. Oddly, one of the most useful sources for me was A Malay-English Dictionary by Richard Wilkinson, published in 1901. Not only was he a great Malay linguist but by chance, he also happened to have a private interest in collecting Malay silverware. As a consequence, his dictionary includes far more terms relating to the manufacture of Malay silverware and the names given to the many types of items made than otherwise would be expected. I’m not sure that anyone had realised this aspect of the dictionary and for me, discovering it was a happy accident in the course of my research. Many of the terms Wilkinson recorded no longer are used and have largely been forgotten. So when I realised that Wilkinson’s dictionary included a disproportionate number of terms relating to Malay silversmithing, part of my research then had to involve reading both volumes of the dictionary – more than a thousand pages – to uncover every small reference to silver and silver-making techniques that Wilkinson had recorded. Often the references were ‘by-the-way’ and so required careful elucidation, of almost every entry.

Looking at descriptions of visits to the many Malay courts on the part of visitors was also important although frustrating too. Too often a foreign visitor would note that this or that sultan wore gold bracelets for example but then declined to give any further descriptions of the bracelets.

My own collecting in this area has been very important because it allowed me to be able to closely study pieces – their motifs and their construction. Building up the collection however has taken many years because Malay silver from the period in which I am interested found its way to the UK and Europe but over time its origins had been forgotten and so when it appeared at auction or even with dealers would typically be described as ‘Indian’ or ‘Eastern’ or even ‘Persian’. Slowly and piece by piece I have been able to put together a comprehensive study collection which has been very important. Several museums have small but instructive holdings too. London’s Victoria & Albert Museum is an example.

Curiously, the holdings of the Malay royal families today are not as useful as one might imagine. Many pieces were sold off and replaced by European-made items, or were replaced by dubious copies, or perhaps were lost during the war years.

Q: How did you become interested in Malay culture?

A: I live in London and have done so for many years but I grew up in Australia which is where I went to university. The Malay world is quite close to Australia but also when I was at university there were many students there from Malaysia. Those, early, formative years were important, especially because many of my friends at university were from Malaysia. This helped to develop a life-long interest in not just Malaysia or the Malay world but Southeast Asia more generally.

Q: Many of the items (but not all) photographed in the book are from your private collection. Why is this?

A: Quite simply, there are few private or public collections of Malay silver and gold. Such items are not very common, and I suppose I have wanted to protect the items by bringing them into one collection with the right attribution. Almost every item that I have bought – and most pieces were acquired with old colonial provenance in the UK and Europe – were not understood to be Malay when I bought them. Some museums have some fine examples but alone they are not enough – what I wanted to show was the extraordinary diversity of Malay silver and goldware. Perhaps some might think that the book has been written to make the collection more saleable but nothing is further from the truth. It is not for sale, never will be, my interest is completely intellectual, and in fact I intend to keep adding to the collection.

Q: The book is not merely a catalogue and includes discoveries and even some controversial chapters. Can you say more about this?

A: Well, yes. I do have a lot to say about what has been written in the past on Malay silver and gold but which I consider to be incorrect. Also, I look at how late 19th century collecting stimulated the production of certain types of silver and gold particularly among the Minangkabau people of Sumatra who are Malay-like and whose production of jewellery and other items seemed largely to satisfy the curio market. Then there is a whole category of ‘Malay’ silver which is attributed to Riau (part of Sumatra plus some nearby islands), including significant holdings in museums, but which I suggest is not Malay at all but was made by Chinese silversmiths in Singapore to satisfy the local expatriate market in the 1920s. And then there is a chapter devoted to the finest of fine gold filigree which adorns 18th century perfume bottles and the like which is often assumed to have been made in London but which I suggest was made by Malays in 18th century Sumatra.

More broadly, I feel that the Malays and their artisans were far more accomplished in the past than they are credited with now. This has been forgotten even by the Malays themselves. Partly, I believe this is a consequence of the New Economic Policy (NEP) of the Malaysian government in the 1980s which saw the implementation of a broad range of preferment measures aimed at helping the Malays better compete against Malaysia’s minority Chinese population. The measures allowed everyone, the Malays included, to see themselves only in terms of requiring state intervention and assistance and this obscured the enormous commercial and trading power that they enjoyed in the past before the Dutch and the British colonised their lands and swamped the indigenous populations with labourers from China.

Q: Do you feel that Malay people themselves might be surprised by your book?

A: Yes, it’s often assumed that because you belong to a certain group then you are best placed to know all about its material culture, but rarely is that the case. Certainly one will have a special and valuable perspective but hearsay, beliefs, opinions and even perceived wisdom handed down through several generations (but in truth often mis-remembered) is not a substitute for painstaking research and fact. In the face to modernise and to look forwards, many Malays have not looked back, and quite quickly old customs and traditions have been forgotten. Of course this is hardly unique to the Malays but probably is the case everywhere. I do remember once showing Daim Zainuddin, Malaysia’s former finance minister, some of the Malay silver and gold items that I have and suddenly he grew very quiet and reflective. He pointed to a set of kerosang, a type of brooch set that Malay women used to use to pin their blouses closed instead of using buttons, and he said very softly, ‘my mother used to wear those.’ He had not seen a kerosang set for decades and suddenly he was transported to another place. It was quite touching.