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Advice to the first time silver buyer

The subject of antique and second-hand silver is vast. It covers works by some of the greatest master goldsmiths who were world-class artists in their own right to mundane utilitarian machine-made household wares and all the stages in between.

Silver has been highly prized for thousands of years and has some unique properties that make it both beautiful and collectible and therefore people have been tempted to own, use and collect it in many forms.

Obviously buyers should start with what they like, but as with all disciplines in the art world, one should go for the very best they can afford. Buying the best does not necessarily mean the oldest, but learning about the makers and their designs will point the buyer in the direction they need to look.

Whether, as a collector, you are interested in very early pieces from prior to the 18th Century or 20th Century items of the decorative arts, talking to a specialist dealer as well as reading the many volumes on the subject will yield rewards.

Learning about the hallmarking systems is just the beginning. When handling a piece of silver some of the things to consider will be:-
Design, gauge, weight, condition, colour, patina, date and maker.

Buying Oriental pieces

There is a massive interest at the moment in oriental silver, not only from the Chinese Export market but also with gathering momentum in silver from India, Burma and beyond.

The way that oriental silversmiths worked the metal was quite different from the European traditions and it is useful to try to understand how the pieces were made and decorated. Establishing the maker is often possible in Chinese Export Silver and the Indian colonial silversmiths of the Raj.

Care should be taken as there are fakes now being made in parts of Asia that appear to be 19th Century Chinese Export Silver pieces. Marking of silverware in this part of the world is not policed as in Europe and the huge demand from China is driving prices ever higher tempting the fraudsters.

There are many volumes now available on the subject and research is on-going. If it suits your taste then Oriental silverware is well worth exploring, with care.

Restoration

Condition is one of the most important things to look for when buying pieces of silver. A piece can look awful when it just needs a good clean and another may seem wonderful even though it has been massively over-restored. It is vital to understand what has been done and what can be done to a piece of silver by a clever silversmith.

When buying early silver the very first thing that should be observed is the colour and patina. These are big subjects, but in short when a piece of silver was made by hand by the goldsmiths of yore, it ended up with what is called “fireskin” where the surface was slightly darkened by the burnishing process. It is difficult to maintain the original colour when restoring an object. Patina is a combination of the colour and the wear. A good piece that is 200 years old will have its life told in the minute scratches and marks that cover the surface. To a trained eye this myriad of tiny blemishes proclaim the piece’s authenticity.

Unlike with furniture and other disciplines in the art and antiques world, very little restoration is acceptable on silver. A small dent may be removed carefully, but lead or silver solder, over-plating, holes, repaired seams, erased inscriptions, patches and later additions or decorations are all unacceptable on a piece of silver except perhaps on the very rarest pieces.

Common areas to look at are joins – particularly handles to tankards and pots – holes on high spots of decoration, thin spots where an erasure has occurred, empty cartouches where an inscription or armorial should have been. Check all removable pieces for part hallmarks to prove they are not replacements. I could write a book on the subject.

Recent notable trends and areas that deserve more attention

As mentioned earlier the most notable trend in recent years has been the interest in Chinese Export Silver. The demand from China and the general interior design leaning towards the oriental look has driven the prices to rise almost fourfold.

The area I think that deserves more attention is that of the silver flatware (cutlery) trade. Prices for good hand-made antique silver cutlery has fallen behind the machine-made factory produced stuff. Not only is the antique silver version better to look at but the quality is vastly superior. Even the tensile strength of a hand-forged spoon or fork is much better than its modern equivalent. It is the only item of silver that you will purchase that your guests will handle – fine cutlery will tell its own story at your dining table.

Displaying and storing your silver

Silver tarnishes, get over it. If you want to display your silverware then first cleaning it with a long term polish that can be found in most supermarkets and then putting it in a fairly airtight cabinet will keep it looking good for as long as possible.

If you live in a very sulphurous atmosphere then your silver will tarnish more quickly. Acidic hands will mark silver so using cotton gloves to handle it will keep it more pristine.

There are proprietary bags of different sizes on the market that are infused with tarnish resistant chemicals that are particularly useful for storing flatware and cutlery.

For the most part silver should be used. Cleaning it and storing it carefully will preserve it literally forever.