There is a big difference in the selection of antique silver for use on your table compared to buying for building an enthusiast's collection. Silver for domestic dining first must fulfil its function, and other characteristics are really secondary. However for building an antique collection the criteria of style, age, hallmarks, maker, age, conditon and rarity all come equally into the buyer's evaluation.
Antique silver is one of the areas of collecting where we can find many hundreds of years old, beautiful and durable objects, often for an affordable outlay.
So how to start out? All good collections have a Theme running through them - in antique silver this could be concentrating on a particular period such as the 18th century; or on a style such as Adam, Regency or Gothic; or on one type of object - teapots, cream jugs, bowls, spoons, marrow scoops, picture back teaspoons, candlesticks, minatures, vesta match cases, boxes, buttons, broaches, or even tongue scrapers or nipple protectors - the choice is nearly endless. Some collectors follow famous makers - de Lamerie (if you can find or afford him), the great Paul Storr, or the leading lady maker Hester Bateman; others collect only from one assay office or region - say Chester, Cork, Channel Islands, Colonial territories or Newcastle, and there are many others. So to give focus to your searching, try and start out with a Theme - or two!
It also needs some essential knowledge to pick your winners, and there is no way to get this except by study - specialist books, museums, trade shows, magazines - all good.
Having decided the theme, in additon to collecting as many different examples within your overall theme, what criteria should be used to add items to your collection? The following list and comments may prove helpful:
1. Condition. Finding something 150 to 300 years old in literally 'As New' condition is extremely rare, but it does happen and when it does, go for it, but expect to pay a big premium over the same item in ordinary condition - it will be worth it. There will be thousands of ordinary items, but judge carefully whether the vendors claims for 'Mint Condition' (not quite New) are justified; generally they are shall we say 'optimistic'. Whilst on Condition, let's deal with repairs and alterations. All damage and repairs to antique silver reduce its value and desireability to collectors; avoid repaired pieces; avoid mechanically polished pieces which may have had repairs; avoid altered pieces. Bright new looking gilding can conceal repairs and alterations. Alterations are illegal with hallmarked silver, unless rehallmarked with today's date, which destroys their collecting merits. Fine engraving and armorials or crests will enhance the value of many pieces, but the condition of the engraving should match that of the piece, lines that are too bright on a rubbed piece may have been sharpened up, or even recently applied. More on armorials below.
For spoons collectors amongst readers, I have seen quite a number of 18th C 'Apostle' or 'Seal top' spoons being offered; do not be taken in - there is no evidence that any Apostle spoons were made in the 18th C; they went out of style in the 17th C. Those I have seen on offer with 18th C hallmarks were all alterations of table spoons, often done in the first half of the 19th C to dupe beginners in the new vogue then for antique collecting. Don't be taken in again - in the 21st C by the same objects, but you could specialise in collecting 'fakes'!
2. Rarity. Not as common by far as the use of the word 'Rare' by vendors about common pieces such as late Georgian Fiddle Pattern flatware. Recognising Rarity does need experience and some depth of knowledge - so aquire these and ignore the numerous daily rarity claims until you can make up your mind based on your own judgement.
3. Age. This seems obvious; the older an item is the more likely that there are not too many around, but sometimes Age means more than the obvious. For instance, a piece that is the earliest of its particular style, will be much more collectible than one ten years later in the same style. Likewise, Age coupled with great condition is a much sought after combination, and again couple these with Rarity and you are onto a must have addition for the collection.
4. Hallmarks. Antique silver hallmarks are the best quide to authenticity, date and origin. They do affect the collecting value by their condition, completeness, legibility and also rarity. Some marks were only used for very short periods, or in small provincial locations, and identifying these can raise the value and attractiveness of the piece to specialist collectors of pieces from such places as Cork, Perth, Channel Islands, colonial Australia or India. Faked hallmarks are a collectors subject on their own, but not for here. Unmarked pieces are not necessarily fakes, however wariness and knowledge are needed to avoid errors. Famous makers marks (Paul de Lamerie, Hester Bateman, Paul Storr for instance) will command prices up to double that of most other makers, and more for the early super quality of Paul de Lamerie.
5. Armorials and Crests. A nice sharp set of engraved Arms or a Crest can enhance the attractiveness and value of any piece of silver. If the engraving is identifiable as a particular noble or is of royal connections it can considerably increase the collectability and value of the piece. It is necessary to be aware of later additions of arms or crests, which however attractive can decrease the value, particularly if there have been erasures. The style of the engraving is generally distinctive to the different ages and this should help in deciding whether the engraving is contemporary with the piece. Notice I said 'sharp' engravings - rubbed engravings, or any other decoration as well, will reduce the value to the collecter.
There is no top or bottom price range in antique silver; one can buy very desirable small 18th century pieces for well under £50, or pay a fortune for monumental 19th century works by the leading makers. Seek out the excellent and unusual that fit your theme(s), and a very satisfying collection can be yours. Trade up as you gather experience, as it is better to have fewer super items than many of ordinary qualities.
6. Presentation. On eBay, be very wary of poor photography (not necessary even with a cheap camera), and also vague descriptions and dating; they may cover up something that is not all it should be for the collector.
Todate(2008) this guide has had over a 1000 viewings, and I hope it has started some readers on the path to addictive silver collecting; it is a wonderful desease! Happy hunting.
(The writer has been collecting antique silver for over 45 years, and specialises in the 18th century, as well as spoons of all ages and rare styles in particular).
Updated June 2008