Almost any old piece of silver tableware conveys its history loud and clear. The hallmarking system, begun by the British in the 1300s, means every sterling silver item, from the humblest teaspoon to the grandest candelabra, is marked with the date/place of manufacture and the maker’s mark. So the history is indisputable and easy to research.
Armed with a magnifying glass and a notebook detailing hallmarks, a novice collector can become, as Mary Dixon of John Dixon Antiques puts it, “a real Miss Marple. You can pick up a spoon and find out exactly where, when and by whom it was made. A whole world opens up.”
To begin building up a full table setting of silver flatware, as experts call such cutlery, it’s best to choose a pattern and perhaps a time frame. (It would be virtually impossible to build up a full set of 60 antique pieces by one maker.) A collector might settle on Fiddle & Thread, Old English or King’s as a pattern and then decide to collect pieces in that style made between, say, 1800 and 1860.
Those dates would mean the silver-ware was made in the late Georgian and early Victorian eras. Georgian silver is more highly prized than Victorian silver because its design is considered finer, better balanced and more elegant.
“Eat an avocado with a Georgian silver teaspoon and it will taste much better than if you eat it with any other kind of spoon,” enthuses Mary, a self-confessed “Georgian silver nut”. Use your silver every day, wash it in a dishwasher if you choose, but always dry it well, polish it occasionally and it will last for generations, she says.
Most collectors focus on sterling silver, the near-solid silver that is the most durable. By law, sterling silver must contain at least 92.5 per cent silver, with a small amount of alloying metals used as hardening agents. Old Sheffield Plate – a fusing of silver and copper – was invented in the 1700s and is also collectable.
A third category, usually marked EPNS but sometimes, confusingly, marked Sheffield-Plated, has silver electroplated on to metals. The result is less valuable than sterling or Old Sheffield.
Experts suggest only buying silver in good condition, but undamaged knives are often difficult to find. So it’s acceptable to add new sterling silver knives to your collection of old silver forks and spoons. And a cleaning tip: place your thumb over the hallmarks when you’re polishing your silver so they are not damaged by rubbing.
This extraordinary table centrepiece by master silversmith Paul Storr (1771-1844) sold at auction at Dunbar Sloane in Wellington in March for $46,300 to a New Zealand collector. The previous record price for silver at Dunbar Sloane was $55,560, paid for four Irish silver candlesticks made in 1740. Paul Storr is regarded as one of the greatest silver craftsmen ever; he made this 30cm-high bowl, held up by four figures, in 1809.
Mary Dixon, of John Dixon Antiques, Auckland, explains that a service of antique sterling silver consists of 60 pieces, excluding knives (which usually wore out more quickly and are often replaced in a collection by modern pieces). The knives, forks and spoons here and at top are all Fiddle & Thread pattern, made in the 19th century, mostly by George Adams; the sterling silver cream jug (top) was made in London in 1780; all are for sale at John Dixon Antiques, (09) 520 2603.
LABELS, SPOONS, NAPKIN RINGS
Wakefield Antiques, Greytown, is offering these silver bottle labels, made in London in 1903, for $145 each. The pair of engraved Fiddle pattern spoons, London 1840, are priced at $245. The silver napkin rings, made in Birmingham in 1903, 1928 and 1944, are $45 for the smaller one and $65 for the other two. (06) 304 9807.
Hamish Walsh of Walsh Antiques, Auckland, has done the detective work on this King’s pattern setting and says five of the spoons were made by William Eaton in London in 1841 and the sixth by George William Adams in London in 1858. Five of the forks are also the work of Eaton, while the sixth has a Glasgow silversmith’s hallmark. The setting, including six silver-plated knives, is on sale for $1150.
(09) 446 6996, walshantiques.co.nz
Story: Pam Neville
Photographs: Belinda Merrie
Stylist: Tracey Strange