Elegance and Charm in the Form of Tea Sets
Popularized in the Victorian era, the silver tea set is an important family heirloom in many homes. Understanding the history of these tea services and the factors that make an antique silver tea set valuable can help you make sure your treasures are properly cared for and displayed.
History of Antique Silver Tea Sets
Before the 18th century, tea sets did not exist in the form anyone today would recognize. Up until then, tea was taken without cream or sugar, so there was no need for those serving pieces. Around 1790, the first silver tea set appeared on the scene, but this type of tea service did not become popular until the reign of Queen Victoria. The Queen was an avid tea drinker, mentioning it hundreds of times in her journal, and she also set the style for much of the world. It was during this era that the multi-piece silver tea set became popular.
Identifying an Antique Tea Set
Because tea sets have been popular for more than a century, identifying an antique silver tea set takes a bit of skill. Some modern tea sets are reproductions of antique designs, and there are even some fake silver tea sets on the market. These are some ways to tell if a tea set is antique:
- Look for patina. A real antique tea set will have signs of age and wear, including darker areas, polish marks, and small scratches.
- Check for mold lines. Most antique tea sets won't have discernable mold lines.
- Pick it up. If it feels very light and even flimsy, it may not be antique.
- Examine it for marks. Manufacturers almost always marked tea sets with silver hallmarks.
Understanding Silver Tea Set Markings
Most silver tea sets have markings on the underside of the pieces. These letters, numbers, and symbols are called hallmarks, and they can tell you a lot about your tea set. Each manufacturer had unique silver hallmarks, allowing you to find out which company made your set and even a date range for when they made it. Almost all silver produced in the United States and England after the mid-1800s will also feature marks that indicate if it is sterling silver.
Telling Sterling Silver From Silver Plate
The value of your your antique silver tea set will depend heavily on whether it is made of sterling silver or a thin layer of silver plate over a base metal. Both silver-plated and sterling tea sets have value, but sterling silver sets are worth considerably more because of the value of the silver itself. Sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver. You can tell if an antique tea set is sterling silver, silver plate, or another metal option by looking at the marks on the bottom.
- Sterling - Sterling silver is always marked as sterling. It will say "sterling," "sterling silver," ".925," "925/1000," or another clear marking for real sterling.
- Silver plate - Silver-plated tea sets may not be marked with metal content at all. Often they have markings like "EPNS," "Sheffield plate," and "silver plate."
- Other options - You may also find silver tea sets that are marked "coin." Coin silver is 80% silver. Another option is pewter, which does not contain silver and has a duller sheen.
Hand Chased Details
There are lots of amazing designs that can make antique tea sets really special. One option is hand chasing. To create delicate designs in the silver, the silversmith uses tools to texture the surface of the silver piece. Tea sets with delicate and beautiful hand chasing are works of art, and they can be very valuable.
Figural Elements on Tea Sets
Many silver tea sets also feature figural elements. These can take the form of three-dimensional flowers or foliage, or they can even be animals or people. Figural silver pieces were very popular during the Art Nouveau period near the end of the Victorian era.
Bakelite and Other Materials as Accents
Some tea sets are constructed entirely of metal, but there are also many that feature other materials. This is especially true for handles or knobs, since these parts could be made separately and attached to the metal body later. One common material, especially for silver plated tea sets from the Art Deco period, is bakelite. This early plastic holds up well over time, and collectors find it appealing.
Monograms on Silver Tea Sets
Families used to monogram their silver pieces with their initials for a touch of personalization. Although monogrammed pieces tend to be worth less than those that are not monogrammed, some collectors love the beautiful lettered designs. If your silver tea set has a monogram, it can be a conversation piece too.
Factors Affecting Antique Silver Tea Set Values
In addition to monogramming, there are several factors that can affect the value of antique silver. If you are wondering if your silver tea set is worth anything, take a few minutes to check the following:
- Metal content - Sterling silver is worth more than silver plate, although an antique silver plate tea set can still have value.
- Condition - Dents, dings, and scratches will decrease the value, as will thin areas in the silver plate.
- Age - In general, older silver tea sets will be worth more than newer examples.
- Details - Special details like hand chasing or unique designs can add a lot to the value of a tea set.
- Rarity - Certain manufacturers or patterns are especially rare, and these can be worth more.
- Number of pieces - A tea set contains a minimum of three pieces: the teapot, sugar bowl, and creamer. However, they can contain six or more, and an antique tea set with a tray can be worth much more than one without.
Example Values for Antique Tea Sets
Depending on its condition and other factors, an antique tea set can range in value from about $100 to several thousand. You can get a sense for your tea set's value by comparing it to other similar tea sets that have sold. Here are some examples:
- A Gorham Rosewood six-piece silver-plated tea set in excellent condition sold for just under $900. It included the tray.
- A Reed & Barton six-piece tea set from 1959 sold for about $1,800. It was silver-plated and in excellent condition, including a tray.
- An Art Deco era three-piece silver-plated tea set with a teapot, creamer, and sugar bowl sold for about $170. The tea pot handle was bakelite.
Tips for Buying and Selling Silver Tea Sets
If you're considering collecting antique silver or have an antique tea set you'd like to sell, it's important to keep a few tips in mind for buying and selling these pieces:
- Always know what you're buying or selling. Take some time to find out everything you can about the tea set before you make a transaction.
- Before you sell sterling silver coffee or tea sets, have them professionally appraised. These sets can be worth several thousand dollars.
- Check local antique stores if you're considering buying an antique tea set. The shipping on these large sets can be expensive, and you can examine the tea set in person at a store.
Make sure the seller has a good return policy if you are buying online. Check the set over once it arrives to make sure it meets your expectations.
Caring for Your Antique Tea Set
When you're not using the tea set, store your silver carefully to keep it from tarnishing or getting scratched. If you do find it tarnishes a little, don't worry. Gentle polishing can restore it to its original beauty. An antique tea set is an heirloom that can last for many generations with proper care.