Tips for Collecting Antique Silver

Kate Miller-Wilson
antique silver

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 it's a good idea to educate yourself about this exciting area of antiques.

15 Helpful Tips

Know Your Options

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, match boxes, cigarette cases, and sewing tools
  • Jewelry, such as lockets, necklaces, and brooches
  • Coins and commemorative medals

Pick a Focus for Your Collection

There are no rules about collecting 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 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.

Choose Your Collection Budget

Your budget may dictate what you choose to collect. Silver-plated items are almost always less expensive than their sterling counterparts, due to the inherent value of the silver metal. In addition, certain very rare pieces are also worth more. 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

Learn About Silver Content and Plating

sterling hallmark
Towle Silversmiths spoon marked "sterling"

Before you buy anything for your collection, it's absolutely essential that you understand the different types of silver. 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.

Find Out About Hallmarks

silverplate hallmark
Hallmark for English Sheffield silver-plated teapot

Makers' marks or 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.

  1. 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.
  2. Look up makers' mark online. The best source 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.
  3. 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.

Learn How to Determine Age

When buying antique pieces for your collection, 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 always a good idea to get it professionally appraised.

Examine the Condition of a Piece

damaged butter dish
Antique silver-plated butter dish with base metal exposed

If you're considering a piece 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 affect on desirability.

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 or not 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.

Avoid "Frankenstein" Pieces

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.

Get Wise on Spotting a Fake

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.

Hold Silver Pieces

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.

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 impact 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.

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 with a 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 in anytime within five years, and M.S. Rau will even pay you interest for the years you had the piece.

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.

Use Your Silver

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.

Tips for Collecting Antique Silver