Posted on: April 13, 2020

Beginner’s Guide: buying silver at auction

In this week’s Beginner’s Guide, we’ll be giving you a few tips on buying silver at auction. Since its discovery in ancient times, silver has been considered a precious metal linked with mystique, luxury and grandeur. After gold, silver is the most malleable and ductile metal, with a distinctive brilliant metallic finish that makes it so alluring. It is an extremely versatile medium, and has been used for a range of purposes throughout history: from it’s practical uses in money and cutlery, to it’s decorative uses in jewellery, objects of virtue and even whole pieces of furniture. Over time, silver has been fashioned in a variety of styles to suit contemporary needs and tastes, enduring centuries of social change. 

A Victorian suite of fiddle, shell and thread silver flatware SOLD £2500

In recent times decorative silver has become a less common fixture in the modern home – while still used in jewellery, silver furnishings and decorative objects have somewhat fallen out of fashion. Nonetheless, the beauty and versatility of silverware should not be overlooked by the modern bidder – with a history spanning hundreds of years, there is something for every taste and purpose, be it practical furnishings such as candlesticks, serving dishes and flatware to adorn your dining table, accessories such as shoe buckles, bookmarks and compacts, or curios such as thimbles, castle-top boxes or vinaigrettes. 

If you’re thinking about starting a silver collection of your own, or looking for inspiration to bring a touch of sparkle into your home, here’s our guide on what to consider before making your first purchase.

Pick a focus for your collection

A piece of advice which is relevant across all areas of antique collecting is to collect what you like – not necessarily what is trending or performing well on the market. Silver has been used as a medium for thousands of years, spanning many different eras and styles. Picking a focus will give you a solid starting point, a clear idea of what to look out for at auction. 

Castle-top vinaigrette by Nathaniel Mills SOLD £380

Your focus may be as broad as collecting silver of a certain era or age i.e. Art Nouveau pieces or 18th century silver, or may be as niche as collecting a specific item, such as shoe buckles or thimbles. If you’re looking for a collection focus, here’s a few things to consider:

  • Specific objects: Find an object that interests you; this may be castle-top boxes, vinaigrettes or even something as simple and niche as decorative thimbles.
  • Era & Age: Consider pieces of a certain era, such as the Art Nouveau period. Alternatively, it may be pieces with age which appeal to you i.e. early Georgian silver.
  • Designers & Manufacturers: Limit yourself to a specific manufacturer, such as Sampson Mordan, Paul Storr or another famous name.
  • Location: Focus your collection to a particular location dear to you i.e. silver by Chester makers
  • Motifs: Focus on a favorite motif like lilies, ladies with flowing hair, geometric designs, or animals. 
  • Practicality: If you’d like to get the most use out of your purchase as possible, choose pieces you will use around the home, such as cutlery, candlesticks or photo frames.

Once you have an idea of what to focus on, make sure you buy the very best that you can afford. At auction you may come across a piece that ticks the boxes in terms of style, maker or age, but other factors i.e. condition should be considered before making a purchase. Long term, it may be better to save for a single, exceptional quality piece then to impulse buy multiple average quality items. 

Learn your silver marks 

Silver hallmarks were first introduced in 13th century France, as a means of consumer protection. A silver object that is to be sold commercially is, in most countries, stamped with one or more silver hallmarks indicating the purity of the silver, the mark of the manufacturer or silversmith, and other markings which indicate date of manufacture and additional information about the piece. These are usually provided by an assay office, which certifies that the object is silver and meets the purity standards of the country of origin before being given a mark. 

Hallmarks differ from country to country and it may take a while to become familiar with them all. If you’re just starting out, British hallmarks are a good place to begin; they may seem complex at first,  but they are very simple code to crack once you are familiar with them. While there are variations in hallmarks of different eras and locales in Britain, here’s a look at the most recurrent marks in British silverware to get you started:

The Lion Passant

Since the 14th century, the English ‘standard’ of silver has been set at 925 parts in 1000, which is commonly referred to as ‘sterling silver.’ The lion passant is the mark used to indicate this purity of silver, and is found on the majority of British silverware. 

Maker’s Mark  

Throughout history registered silversmiths left their individual marks on the silver pieces they made. These can take the form of simply the maker’s initials, or some may have distinctive borders or icons. Certain makers are very sought after and command very high prices, such as Paul Storr, Christopher Dresser or Omar Ramsden.

City of Assay 

This mark identifies the location of the Assay Office where the silver item was verified. Each city has a different characteristic mark, with some of the largest and most common listed below. In some earlier pieces of silver, you may come across more provincial city marks; smaller city Assay Offices were common from the 16th century onward as they saved silversmiths travelling long, difficult journeys to the main Assay Offices. Many of these offices have since closed down, and pieces with marks from locations such as Exeter, Chester or Glasgow can be more popular at auction because of this. 

Date Letters

A date letter indicates the year that the piece was hallmarked; a letter ‘A’ may represent the year 1900, ‘B’ represents 1901 etc. This system is cyclical, i.e. once an assay office reaches the end of the alphabet they begin again, but the letters will be in a different font or within a different border to distinguish them from earlier pieces with the same letter. Date letters and styles were not standardised across the English Assay Offices until 1975, so be sure to check which Assay Office hallmarked the piece before checking the date letter.

It is important to become familiar with these marks before making your first purchase. Many silver plated or white metal items are stamped with a series of marks that imitate silver hallmarks, which can be confusing. No silver buyer should be without an edition of ‘Jackson’s Hallmarks: English, Scottish, Irish Silver and Gold Marks from 1300 to the Present Day’ which provides a comprehensive index of silver and gold makers marks, dates and assay marks from England, Scotland and Ireland. 

Consider the Condition 

Ramsden & Carr silver & enamel inkwell SOLD £1500

Condition is a vital aspect to consider before making a purchase; it can affect the long-term value, and if the piece is intended for practical use, it’s usefulness and integrity. The condition of an object isn’t always obvious on first inspection – some may look terrible and just require a good polish to make it look brand new, or some may look fantastic but are riddled with restoration. When assessing or asking about a piece’s condition, be sure to check for:

  • Lead-solder or silver-solder repair: this can leave unsightly marks on silverware and is near impossible to remove without incurring a large cost. It can also greatly impact a piece’s long term value.
  • Damage and wear: this could include minor or major denting, splitting, holes to high-points of a piece, cracking to joins or thinning.
  • Engravings: Engraved pieces can be tricky; sometimes an inscription on a piece can add intrigue and value, other times it can detract from its appeal. Some engravings may be relatively easy to remove, others are more deeply entrenched. 
  • Consistent Hallmarks: If the item has removable pieces such as a lid, be sure to check that all pieces are marked with the same hallmarks and are not later replacements – this again can affect the long-term value of a piece
  • Later decoration: It is not uncommon to find early pieces of silver with later decoration, for example a Georgian era tray with later decoration added during the Victorian era. To an experienced buyer this may be obvious, but spotting it may take some practice if you’re just getting started.
  • Fake hallmarks: These are relatively uncommon, but are still worth being weary of. Silver hallmarks occasionally can be forged on pieces supposedly by collectable makers. It may take a more trained eye to spot this, so if you have any doubts be sure to ask a department representative before making a purchase. 
Sampson Mordan desk seal SOLD £190

Some faults are relatively inexpensive and quick to rectify, such as light denting or engravings which may be removed by a skilled silversmith. Others such as solder repair or later decoration are extremely difficult or impossible to remove. If you can’t make it to an auction house to see a piece in person, or simply would like extra reassurance, be sure to ask for a thorough condition report and additional pictures highlighting any faults.

Caring for your silver

Tarnish and wear is an inevitable downside of owning any piece of silver, whether you use it regularly or not. However with diligent care and caution, good condition can be preserved. 

When shopping for antique or second hand silver, it’s likely that your purchase will need sprucing up. Good long-term silver polish is cheap and easy to find in most supermarkets, and will remove grime easily with a soft cotton cloth and some elbow grease. Do be wary of using too much polish – this can leave a pink residue in crevices and joins on the piece. Once your piece is looking clean, be sure to go over it again with a clean cotton cloth to make sure it is dry.

Keswick School of Industrial Art toast rack SOLD £850

When it comes to storing your silver, be sure you’re using the right materials; wrap delicate items in acid free tissue paper and place them in cotton bags if possible. Common household items such as newspaper, felt or bubble wrap are more readily available, but should be avoided. To be extra cautious, use cotton gloves when handling your items – the skin on our hands can be slightly acidic which may impact a piece over time – or leave fingerprints! 

When displaying your silver, be sure to avoid oak furniture if possible – the natural mild acidity of the wood may cause damage over time. For extra protection, consider placing a layer of acid-free tissue paper between the silver and the surface. 

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