The first step in identifying and establishing the value of silver is to ascertain whether the piece is silver or silver-plated. Sterling silver objects are made of 92.5% silver and 7.5% other metals, usually copper. A silver-plated piece is simply a base metal that is coated with silver; so while something may shine like silver, don’t let it fool you. Unfortunately, silver-plated items hold almost no monetary worth. There is not enough silver content to have melt down value and generally, these pieces do not retain their resale value.
Begin with looking for the hallmarks or stamps on the item. To make it simple, American silver created after about 1850 will almost always have the word “Sterling” or the number “925” somewhere on the piece, along with a pictorial or initial maker’s mark. British silver can be a bit more complex, as the history of British hallmarking dates back to the 14th century. Essentially, all British silver manufactured after 1700 should bear at least four hallmarks. First is the lion passant mark, which is the sterling guarantee mark. In Edinburgh and Ireland, it is replaced with their National symbols, the thistle and the harp, respectively. This mark guarantees that the piece has been assayed as sterling silver. The second mark is a town mark; for London, and most commonly, you will see a leopard’s head. Next is a date letter, ranging from A to Z. Finally, you will find a maker’s mark which is usually the initials of the silversmith. Some items may also have a fifth hallmark of a facial profile, which is a duty mark. Continental silver, such as silver made in Germany, France, or Italy, differs in the way items are assayed and marked, based on their country of origin. You may notice “800” stamped on a piece of silver, with a depiction of a crown and crescent moon, both of which will indicate the item was manufactured in Germany.
Once it has been determined that your piece of silver is in fact silver and not silver-plated, it is important to ascertain the item’s age, maker, condition, provenance, and pattern. Each of these elements will play significant roles in determining the object’s value and auction estimate. Though the value of silver as a commodity is a good place to start, it is most certainly not the only factor involved in assessing an item’s worth. At Freeman’s, we suggest auction estimates based on the factors listed above including the quality and aesthetics of the object, together with the value in silver weight.
Images: Fine George II silver tea caddy, Alexander Johnston, London, 1755-56; Hallmark Detail of a Charles II silver tobacco box, Daniel Rutty, London, 1661-62; Hallmark Detail of a Pair of sterling silver beakers, Tiffany & Co., New York, NY, 20th century