With its gorgeous sheen and spectacular workmanship, antique silver makes a fun and valuable collecting focus. There is a huge variety of silver pieces, from plated tea pots to sterling flatware to dresser sets and other decorative objects. However, there's also a lot to know about antique silver and its value, and it's a good idea to educate yourself about this exciting area of antiques.
1. Know Your Options for Antique Silver Pieces
Over the years, manufacturers have made thousands of different types of objects out of silver and silverplate. Before you begin your collection, it's important to understand what's out there on the antiques market. Almost anything can be made or embellished with silver, but the following are a few of the most popular options:
- Dining and serving pieces, such as tea sets, bowls, platters, and candy dishes
- Decorative objects, such as vases and candlesticks
- Flatware, including forks, knives, spoons, and serving pieces
- Personal care items, including hair brushes, mirrors, shoe button hooks, and dresser sets
- Clothing elements and accessories like buttons, purse frames, belt buckles, and chatelaines
- Useful items like pens, magnifying glasses, matchboxes, cigarette cases, and sewing tools
- Jewelry, such as lockets, necklaces, and brooches
- Coins and commemorative medals
2. Pick a Focus for Your Antique Silver Collection
There are no rules about collecting antique silver, but it is helpful to pick a focus for your collection. If you're looking for a collecting focus, consider some of these ideas:
- Choose a very specific type of object, such as sterling silver glove hooks or salt cellars.
- Collect items from a favorite era, such as pieces with Art Nouveau or Art Deco designs.
- Limit yourself to a specific antique silver manufacturer, such as Wallace, Unger Brothers, Whiting, or another famous name.
- Focus on a favorite motif like lilies, ladies with flowing hair, geometric designs, or animals.
- Choose pieces you will use regularly, such as serving spoons and dishes.
3. Know Your Budget and What Antique Silver Is Worth
Your budget may dictate what you choose to collect. Silver-plated items are almost always less valuable than their sterling counterparts, due to the inherent value of the silver metal. In addition, certain very rare pieces are also worth more. Some of the most valuable antique silverware pieces can retail for thousands of dollars.
If you're on a budget but want to begin a great collection, consider collecting one of these items, which often retail for under $25 apiece:
- Silver-plated sugar spoons or sugar shells
- Silver-plated salt cellars or salt shakers
- Tiny sterling silver salt spoons
- Silver-plated candy dishes
- Silver-plated shoe button hooks
4. Learn About Silver Content and Plating
Before you buy anything for your collection, it's absolutely essential that you understand the different types of silver. Antique silver is real silver, but solid silver items are uncommon because solid silver is far too soft to hold up to use. Instead, most of what you'll find on the market is either sterling silver or silverplate.
- Sterling silver is made up of 92.5 percent solid silver and 7.5 percent other metals. This makes it more durable and helps it hold its shape for centuries with proper care. Most sterling silver items from the 19th and 20th century are clearly marked. You'll see the word "sterling" or the number "925."
- Silver-plated items have a thin layer of silver that covers a base metal, often nickel. They often carry the words "silverplate" or "electroplate" or the initials "EPNS" for electro-plated nickel silver.
Most unmarked items are silverplate, but there's always the chance that your piece is sterling. One of the easiest ways to tell the difference is to place the item in hot water. If it gets and stays very hot, it's likely to be sterling. If it cools off quickly or doesn't get as hot as the water, it's probably plated. This is because silver is a better conductor of heat than the base metal beneath silverplate.
5. Find out About Silver Marks, Initials, and Symbols
Makers' marks or silver hallmarks are the tiny stamped initials and designs that you'll find on the underside or backside of most silver pieces. On jewelry or other tiny items, you might find these marks on a clasp or other unobtrusive area of the piece. These marks correspond to a specific manufacturer and sometimes to a date or location.
- To identify your silver piece, start by finding the mark. If you can't read it clearly, dip a cotton swab in a gentle silver polish and swirl it over the mark. This will remove the surface tarnish, allowing the mark to show up.
- Look up makers' mark online. One of the best sources for silver identification on the internet is the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks, and Makers' Marks. You can conduct a free search by manufacturer or by type of mark.
- Compare your piece to the picture of the mark shown online. When you find a match, you'll know your manufacturer and possibly a date. This information is essential for assessing the value of antique silver.
6. Learn How to Date Antique Silver
There are a few ways to tell if silver is antique and get an idea of how old it might be. Older silver items are often more valuable, so it's important to be able to get a sense of an item's age. This is relatively easy for hallmarked pieces, since most silver manufacturers changed their marks every few years. If the item has a mark, simply compare it to the known marks for that manufacturer to narrow down the date range.
For those pieces that don't have a hallmark, look for design clues. It helps to know a bit about motifs and styles that were popular during your favorite collecting eras.
- Aesthetic movement - Pieces from the 1860s through the 1890s often feature elements of this design movement, including simple lines, nature motifs, Asian-inspired images, and hand engraving.
- Art Nouveau movement - Popular with collectors, the Art Nouveau movement in silver included flowing lines, elaborately detailed floral images, animals, and women with long hair. These pieces were made between 1890 and 1910.
- Art Deco movement - Art Deco silver design, which was popular from about 1915 through 1935, included a focus on geometric shapes, repeated design elements, and simple lines.
When it doubt about the age of piece, it's often a good idea to get it professionally appraised.
7. Examine the Condition of a Silver Item
If you're considering a piece of antique silver for your collection, always take some time to examine its condition. Dents, heavy corrosion, worn silverplate that reveals the base metal, scratches, broken areas, and other types of damage can detract from the value of your item. Generally, these damaged pieces are not the best items to add to your collection. However, if the item is especially rare or old, the damage may not have such a drastic effect on desirability.
Although it isn't practical in all shopping situations, you'll have the best chance of finding a quality piece of antique silver for your collection if you can actually hold the item in your hand. This allows you to check the texture of the piece, noting rough spots that might indicate damage or clumsy repairs. You can also blow on the item, which will make scratches and dings more apparent.
8. Spot the Most Valuable Antique Silverware
Certain pieces of antique silver are especially valuable, and being able to spot them in stores and online can help you get a good deal. Sometimes, these treasures are hidden among more ordinary pieces, so knowing how to identify them can be helpful for building you collection. Look for the following:
- Valuable patterns - Some of the most valuable antique sterling silver flatware patterns are ones that feature delicate craftsmanship and individual designs on the different types of pieces. For example, Whiting Berry has different types of berries on each piece.
- Famous manufacturers - There were dozens of different antique sterling silver flatware manufacturers around 1900, but a few are particularly valuable to collectors. Tiffany is one that is always worth collecting, and Georg Jenson is another.
- Figural motifs - Antique silver that includes figures of people, animals, or botanicals are often worth more. These tend to be rare. Some manufacturers, such as Unger Brothers, specialized in pieces like these.
- Serving pieces - Sterling silver serving pieces tend to be more valuable than regular flatware, as there were fewer of them made. Additionally, there were lots of rare serving pieces that had extremely specific uses, such as cucumber servers.
- Handmade details - Most sterling silver flatware was made by machine, despite its incredible detail. However, certain patterns and pieces have applied details and delicate hand chasing. These are usually valuable.
9. Understand Monograms and Monogram Removal
As you delve into the world of antique silver, you'll notice that a large portion of the available items are monogrammed. This means that a jeweler engraved them with the initials of the original owner. Sometimes, the monogram also includes a date or a message about the occasion.
Monograms frequently, but not always, detract from the value of an item. Whether you include monogrammed items in your collection is up to you. Some collectors even seek out these pieces, since the art of monogramming is quite lovely and in many cases cannot be replicated by today's jewelers. Other collectors focus on a specific initial or a certain style of monogram.
You should also be aware that some pieces will have had the monograms removed. This can show up as a flat, thin, or dull area where the monogram once was. Monogram removal always detracts from a piece's value.
10. Avoid "Frankenstein" Pieces of Antique Silver
If you look at enough antique silver, you may run into "Frankenstein" or "marriage" pieces. These authentic-looking items are actually made up of two different pieces of antique silver that have been fused together. Often, this is an effort to get some value from two damaged pieces or to replicate a piece that is especially rare.
It's not always easy to tell real from "Frankenstein" items, but you can use these tips to help:
- Look for rough spots where the flatware handle meets the bowl of a spoon or shoulders of a fork or where the base of a teapot meets the body. This is a likely area for joining two separate pieces.
- Check for evidence of soldering or a slightly bubbled appearance anywhere on a piece.
- Always measure the item and compare it to the dimensions listed in silver collecting books like Miller's Collecting Silver: The Facts at Your Fingertips and All About Antique Silver with International Hallmarks. Often, the process of combining two pieces will change the dimensions of the finished item.
11. Learn How to Spot Fake Antique Silver Items
Unfortunately, the market is full of fake pieces masquerading as genuine antiques. It takes time to be able to spot a very skilled reproduction; however, there are a few ways you can protect yourself:
- Examine the engraving and the dimensional details or chasing on a piece. Are they sharp and clear, or do they appear muddy or lumpy? Sometimes, forgers will take a casting of a valuable piece and then produce several crude imitations from the mold.
- Take a good look at the marks on the item. Do the hallmarks or makers' marks look the way you'd expect? It's much harder to fake a hallmark than to create a reproduction piece of silver.
- When in doubt, always have your piece appraised by someone who knows silver. You can find a good resource by asking for recommendations from your favorite antique shop.
12. Understand Silver Melt Value
If you're collecting antique sterling, you'll need to understand how the melt value of silver affects the price of pieces you may want for your collection. Sterling values rise and fall according to the melt price for silver metal, even for antique items. If the price of silver is low, it's a good time to buy. This is not a factor for those collecting silverplate, since it contains only a thin layer of silver.
To find out the current melt value for silver, check out a site like SilverRecyclers.com. You can estimate the weight of the item you're considering and get a melt value for the silver content. Your item is likely to be worth much more than this melt value because it is an antique; however, this melt value is a starting point for understanding the value and the changes in the price of these antique silver objects.
13. Buy From Reputable Sources
When you purchase items for your collection, you can shop at antique stores in your area or at flea markets. The advantage to local shopping is that you can handle the pieces; however, you will get a better selection online. This is especially true in the case of sterling items, since many local shops have stopped carrying these theft-tempting and valuable pieces.
When shopping online, make sure you only purchase from reputable sources. The following shops specialize in silver and allow returns if you are not satisfied with your purchase:
- Nelson & Nelson Antiques - Specializing in silverplate and sterling valued at less than $500 per piece, this New York-based shop has a great online selection and an excellent return policy. It's a good place to shop for that special item, including pieces that are handmade. You'll also find jewelry, decorative objects, flatware, and much more.
- Antique Cupboard - Antique Cupboard is a Wisconsin-based family business that specializes in flatware. You'll find both sterling and silver-plated pieces, as well as estate silver jewelry, decorative items, and more. They stand by all their pieces and guarantee you will be satisfied with your purchase.
- M.S. Rau Antiques - If you're looking for something truly amazing and unique, this is a great place to go. They have extremely valuable and interesting silver-plated and sterling pieces and one of the best guarantees in the business. If you aren't satisfied with your item, you can return it anytime within five years, and M.S. Rau will even pay you interest for the years you had the piece.
14. Choose the Best Way to Sell Antique Silver
If you decide you want to sell a silver collection or some individual pieces, it's important to do your research ahead of time. The more you know about your pieces, the less chance you have of asking too little for them. If you have a large collection, it's worth getting a professional appraisal to make sure you know the value of what you have. Once you've learned all you can about your antique silver, you can use one of the following methods to sell it:
- Online auction - You can list your silver pieces online at sites like eBay. You'll need to handle all the details of the transaction yourself, but this method can maximize your profit and give you exposure to lots of potential buyers.
- Local consignment - Local antique stores sometimes sell silver on consignment. This means that the store will handle everything, but they will take a percentage of the sales price. This is less hassle, but it also means less profit.
- Online dealer - You can work with a company that specializes in selling antique online, either through an online antique shop or a store specializing in silver. Again, you won't have to worry about the details, but you will have to pay a fee.
If you have antique silver, avoid selling it to a gold and silver buyer or a pawn shop. These places will pay you melt value for it, but they rarely take into account the value of the antique itself.
15. Learn How to Care for Silver
Silver is a delicate, malleable metal, and as such, it requires special care. In order to preserve the value of your collection, it's important to understand how to care for it properly. Keep these tips in mind:
- Always use the gentlest silver polish you can find. Choose one made specifically for silver and not a polish formulated for a variety of metals.
- Never polish unless you have to. Every time you polish your silver, you remove a tiny bit of the metal. For plated items, this can mean exposing the base metal and detracting from the item's value.
- Store your silver in tarnish-preventing bags or a tarnish-preventing case. This minimizes polishing.
- If you use your items with foods containing egg or acids, wash them immediately. These substances can quickly cause tarnish if left on your silver.
- Wash your silver regularly in mild soap and water.
In most cases, antique silver items were made to be used. While it's not practical to use some archaic pieces like button hooks and chatelaines on a regular basis, you can and should try to use your flatware, dishes, jewelry, and anything else you can. Regular use actually reduces the need to polish your pieces. What's more, you get the joy of experiencing your collection regularly.
A Collection You'll Enjoy for Years
Collecting antique silver is fun, and it's also an opportunity to build a collection that has great monetary and personal value. If you are careful in choosing and caring for your pieces, you'll create a stunning silver collection you'll enjoy for many years to come.