Bring Your Antique Silver Out of Storage

Do you have a closet full of silver that you are not using? Has your silver flatware spent most of its life wrapped in a silver cloth in the china cabinet? Unfortunately the chore of polishing it keeps most sterling silver objects hidden out of sight and out of mind. Most people save their silver for special occasions, but if you have it why not flaunt it.

Bring your silver bowls, pitchers, trays and cups out of the closet and into use. Nothing tastes quite as refreshing as a cold glass of water in a silver goblet. If you own a stunning bowl or a large urn consider displaying the silver piece on a landing or empty corner. The sparkle of the queen of metals will attract attention. At the next football tailgate, leave the plastic at home and bring your silver tray to serve sandwiches. There are no rules when it comes to using silver. Mix old with new, it does not need to be a fancy occasion to use your silver pieces.

Many people who own silver are not sure whether they own a silver sterling object or a silver plate item. Sterling silver objects contain at least 925 parts of silver to 75 parts alloy, usually copper. Pure silver would be too soft so the precious metal must be blended with another alloy for durability. Most sterling silver objects will be marked ‘Sterling’ or ‘925’.

If you happen to be the owner of European sterling, then the markings will be different. To determine whether English sterling is part of your collection, look for a hallmark with four or five different symbols. The lion passant or walking lion indicates that the object is sterling. Look for a letter mark that identifies in what year the piece was made. Each cycle is determined by a different font letter, capital and lower case. In London the first cycle of letter marks began in 1479. Look for the marks identifying the City of Assay which is the place where each piece was taken to the Goldsmith’s representative to be tested and confirmed that it met the standards of purity – i.e 925 of 1000 parts silver. The sterling item will also have a maker’s mark or initials identifying the silver smith. Depending on when the item was made, a duty mark or sovereign’s head will also appear.

Silver plate objects are made of another type of metal and a coat of silver has been applied over the metal. Often silver plate objects are marked EPNS, Electro Plated Nickel Silver. Nickel Silver is often the base metal onto which silver is plated. Nickel silver does not contain any silver at all, but is alloy of nickel, zinc and copper.

If you do start using your silver, keep in mind that while the dishwasher is a wonderful invention, it is not recommended for sterling objects. The abrasive detergent and agitation can affect the patterns on the silver. Warm soapy water and a soft clean rag is the best method of cleaning silver.

Also, if you have a large collection of valuable sterling objects, consider having the pieces scheduled on your insurance policy. Jewelry and sterling are objects most often stolen.

What should you do with your silver if you are tired of storing the objects or are downsizing? First take your silver pieces to a reputable dealer or appraiser to determine whether your antique silver is sterling or plate. The professional will also help you to identify the maker and markings on the object which will help to indicate the value of the piece. Sterling items sell well at auction since there continues to be a high demand for antique silver of all types. For example a Georg Jensen Sterling ‘Cosmos’ tea service sold this past year for $13,000 and S. Kirk & Son ‘Rose’ pattern sterling flatware sold for $2,500. A Tiffany Sterling Silver Repousse water pitcher recently sold for $3,500 and a Sterling Silver platter by Gorham sold at auction recently for $1,200.

Whether you are using your silver regularly or selling pieces in storage remember to make sure that you understand what you own!

Colleen Boyle is Vice President of Pall Mall Art Appraisers and Advisors. She holds advanced degrees in Art History and a diploma in French fine and decorative arts from Christie’s, Paris. She appraises art and antiques for private collectors and corporations throughout the U.S. and regularly publishes articles about art and antiques. 610-470-5340 (phone), cboyle@pallmallartadvisors.com, www.pallmallartadvisors.com