Friday, July 5, 2013

Antique Sterling Silver-Collecting & Investing

Over the past year one of the top selling items for my store has been antique sterling silver. Sterling silver is in the top ten best selling items for several  popular on-line auctions.  I have also noticed at recent estate auctions, bidding on antique sterling silver requires real stamina.  Some weeks the items on the "Wish List" for my shop at are almost entirely sterling silver.  In recent months, I have sold pierced baskets, bowls, a tea caddy spoons, calling card cases, fish knives, serving spoons, and several chargers. Most of my buyers have purchased these pieces to add to their collections; however, some buy to present as gifts.

Sterling silver has been part of most people's lives in the way of wedding gifts, baby gifts, anniversary gifts, Christmas gifts, and gifts for major milestones in their lives. Memories of holiday dinners with the table set with family silver.  Memories as a child having tea from your Grandmother's silver teapot.  Memories of our children in pictures captured in silver frames collected over the years bring a smile. Memories, of a race that first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, and a cool Mint Julep in a silver cup. Memories and tradition add layers to our lives. Sterling silver adds a nice layer! Or lining, as some would say!

One area that is really "hot" today is sterling cocktail items. The resurgence of the "cocktail hour" has motivated this interest.  Cocktail shakers, trays, servers, stirrers, picks, and ice buckets are receiving a fair share of the attention.  Claret jugs, though from another period of time, also enjoy popularity. Wine funnels, labels, and mint julep cups also command attention.

The allure of silver has endured since civilization began.  It is second only to gold as a precious metal. Silver has a long history. It has been mined for over 5,000 years. The Greeks minted the drachma; the Romans the denarius; and the British their English shilling (sterling). Alexander the Great had an elite guard on which he bestowed silver shields. Imagine the opposing army facing those shields on a sunny day. The Lavrion Silver mine in ancient Greece provided funds for the Athenians.  The funds helped them defeat the Persians and build the Acropolis and other monuments. In the Medieval period through the seventeenth century spoons were a personal item and presented at baptism.  Horn, pewter, brass, and silver were used to craft spoons.  Normally, only wealthy families presented silver spoons at birth.  People took their spoons to banquets (none were provided) so your station in life was revealed by your spoon.  There really is meaning behind that old saying "Born with a silver spoon in your mouth".

Silver's great strengths include reflectivity, malleability and ductility.  Silver reflects a high percentage of light that falls on it.  Photographing silver for Internet listings can be a challenge! Malleability and ductility refer to the ability to shape and mold.  These two characteristics have made it a favorite for craftsman through the centuries.  Their creativity is almost unlimited when working with silver.  Silver is also an excellent heat conductor.  One additional interesting note: bacteria cannot survive on silver.  Some early surgical instruments were crafted of silver.  Today antique silver surgical items from the 1800's are highly collectable.

Other popular items I see collectors buying include serving pieces such as asparagus servers, tomato servers, candelabras, candlesticks, trays, condiments, salts, mustard pots, stirrup cups, boxes, nutmeg graters, card cases, vesta boxes, cigarette cases, picture frames, napkin rings, tea/coffee services, tea canisters and tea caddy spoons.  These items always seem to captivate collectors.

A silver collection can be built over time and can take as little space as a table top.  Once you have decided what will be in your collection; spend some time reading and researching.  The Internet is a great source for research and there are also many good books on the subject.  My personal favorite is "Antique Silver" by Ian Pickford. I have included in this article information from his book.  Begin to familiarize yourself with hallmarks.  Again, you can find sites on the web and books to help identify marks. One of my favorites is Miller's "Silver & Sheffield Plate Marks" by John Bly.

It may help you to first choose a style, period or era.  Some people prefer to collect only by maker, such as Tiffany, or country of origin.  Decide what you want to invest in your collection.  It is also important to collect what you like and what appeals to you.  I have a collection of silver creamers and sugars.  I use these for flower arrangements; they are great for floribunda roses, which have many blooms but short stems.  I love to use them next to guest beds, in bathrooms, or all of them as a centerpiece for my table.

Once you have made a decision on style, period, and price you are ready to start.  Keep these four things in mind: Quality, Condition, Maker, and Marks.  Regarding quality, buy the best you can afford in your price range and consider design and workmanship. Considering condition, ask yourself: will it need repair, what kind of wear does the piece have; and will it need restoration?  What condition are you willing to accept?  Also consider monograms. Some people approve of monograms and some do not. Evaluate the maker.  Is it known to be a quality maker?  For a quality maker there may be an extra cost.  Is it worth it?  Familiarize yourself with marks. You may pay a premium for rare marks.

Important Terms When Buying Antique Silver

Sterling Silver Sterling silver is 92.5percent pure silver and 7.5 percent alloy metal. American sterling is simply marked "Sterling", sometimes followed by 925, and a makers mark. British sterling bears hallmarks that include symbols and letters to indicate the standard (Lion Passant which indicates sterling), town, date, duty marks, and makers mark. It may seem confusing at first, but after you decipher the system it is easy to use. After you have been collecting for a while, you will begin to notice the leopard's head mark and you will know the town is "London" and the anchor mark will register as "Birmingham". In time, you will be able to pick up a piece of silver and recognize the marks. Other European countries have systems in place for identifying sterling. One web-site that is most helpful is:

Britannia The legal standard for all silver pieces produced between 1697 and 1720. It contained 958 parts pure silver - 33% more silver than sterling.

Coin Silver Coin silver is 90 percent pure silver and 10 percent alloy metal. It was used to produce U.S. currency during the 19th. Century. It is no longer used, but highly collectable.

Vermeil Sterling silver electroplated with at least 100 millionths of an inch of karat gold.

Old Sheffield Plate The object is made from metal already plated. Unlike other forms where the object is made first then plated. Today the term Sheffield Plate is used rather broadly.

Electroplated The name given to articles coated with pure silver by electrolysis.

EPNS (Electroplated Nickel Silver) and EPBM (Electroplated Britannia Metal).

Things To Consider When Buying

Study the period you are considering. There is a wealth of information both on the Internet and in books. Consider damage.  For a rare piece damage will not be as big an issue as for the less rare piece. Repairs and dents can be repaired by a silversmith.  Keep in mind repairs mean added costs. Tarnish can hide wear or repairs.  Be wary of items that are not cleaned; scratches are not as easily seen due to tarnish.  Also be aware that some damaged items may have been modified, especially in flatware, such as damaged spoons cut into forks.  When buying on the Internet, do not hesitate to contact the seller for more information and pictures.  Most reputable sellers invite questions and request for more pictures.  Today the Internet has many reputable sellers with quality merchandise.

I will close with two reminders.  As I mentioned earlier, I frequently use silver sugar and creamers for flowers.  Always use a liner of some sort before placing flowers inside sterling.  The flowers as they decay and can cause damage to the silver . I keep an assortment of paper cups in different sizes for liners. Second, sterling silver that is used and washed more often does not need polishing as frequently. Antique sterling silver achieves that beautiful patina (new sterling just does not have it) after years of handling and use. Use and enjoy your silver. 

The above was an article that I wrote for Ruby Lane; if you wish to use information or quotes from the article; please contact me first.  Copyright protected.

       Below are some of my favorite pieces from my shop; some have been sold                           to collectors and some are still available:


One of my favorite pieces of all time; a stunning French silver
and vermeil ice cream service

Service for 12 including a fish service and
oak storage chest

A set of four Gucci stirrup cups

A set of four Puiforcat serving trays

One of my favorite customers has this French silver and crystal
confiturer on layaway.  She uses my layaway plan frequently which
helps her continue to add to her collection.