For collectors, one of the most long-standing and reliable investments has been antique silver. That’s largely due to the intrinsic value of silver, despite the volatile nature of the market. Silver is highly sought after because of its utility to modern society and industries, and its timeless history of use plays a large role in sparking a collector’s interest in a particular silver or silver-plated item.
The desirability and fine craftsmanship of silver pieces endures the test of time, which is why so many collectors covet antique silverware and other “objets de vertu.”
The scrap value of silver antiques is slowly changing the way antique silver is valued and perceived. Provenance and rarity, in turn, are becoming increasingly important factors, given that they deter from the impulse to turn silver into scrap.
“We have seen growth in silver and vertu collecting, likely due to the scrap value. This serves as a base for price, which rises based on designer and decorative values,” says Jack Collins, auctioneer and certified gemologist at Apple Tree Auction Center.
The price of scrap silver drives the low end of the market while the demand for top-quality, rare objects dominate the high end. This is why middle market prices are relatively stable.
Types of Silver and Objets de Vertu
Objets de Vertu
A more precious type of objet d’art, objets de vertu are created purely for artistic enjoyment and contemplation, excluding pieces that may have some kind of practical use or function. They are both elevated and defined by their use of precious metals, such as silver, gold, or platinum, and gemstones.
Perhaps the most famous pre-World War I example is Russian jeweler Peter Carl Fabergé’s eggs — styled after Easter eggs and crafted with precious metals. Other category-level examples include:
- Perfume caskets and bottles – Ornamented vessels for perfume often made in precious materials
- Enamels – Objects coated in an opaque or semitransparent glossy material.
- Snuff boxes – Small, decorated boxes made for holding tobacco.
- Cigarette cases – Embellished, compact containers for cigarettes.
- Desk seals – Stamp-like objects made to denote from whom a letter has come in a wax imprint bearing the owner’s symbol.
- Needle cases – Decorated compact holders for sewing needles.
- Silver or gold miniatures – Small figures or figurines made from precious metals like silver and gold.
- Ashtrays – Vessels used to collect the ash from cigars and cigarettes.
- Compacts – Small, envelope-like objects intended to hold a variety of items used daily, such as a mirror.
Materials used may include gold, platinum, silver, horn, bone, wood, semi-precious and precious stones, and enamel. While objets de vertu often contain elements of silver, many examples of antique silver pieces are made to be useful, such as a variety of kitchenware, and are not considered objets de vertu.
Silver and Silverplate
Silver’s versatility, functionality, and value make it the perfect material for fine table and dinnerware, masterful decorative pieces, and commemorative items.
Every era and nation has had a history of silversmithing and craftsmanship. For example, Russia’s claim to silver fame is Fabergé’s enameled silver. One particularly highly collected Danish designer is Georg Jensen. England’s Georgian silver by artisans like Paul Storr and Hester Bateman are very popular, while 20th-century silver designers like Paul Revere, Myer Myers, and Arthur Stone are Colonial America’s most celebrated examples.
Below is a list of popular types of silver and silverplate:
1. Dining and serving pieces:
2. Decorative and functional objects:
- Serving pieces
4. Personal care items:
- Hair brushes
- Dresser sets
5. Clothing accessories:
- Purse frames
- Belt buckles
6. Miscellaneous functional items:
- Magnifying glasses
- Match boxes
- Cigarette cases
- Sewing tools
7. Coins and commemorative medals
Building Your Collection
Silver Purity and Plating
When it comes to collecting silver, it’s important first to understand the different types and the fact that it’s very rare, if not impossible, to find solid silver pieces. That’s because silver is too soft to be durable. Overall, most silver objects are in fact sterling silver or silverplate. Types of silver include:
- Fine: Also called pure silver, fine silver is 99.9 percent silver, the rest comprising of trace impurities. This silver grade is used for bullion bars and investment in silver. Fine silver is too soft for use in much else.
- Sterling: Sterling silver is made of 92.5 percent silver, the rest being other various metals, such as copper. This makes the piece durable and gives it the ability to hold a shape throughout its lifespan when cared for properly. In general, 19th and 20th century sterling silver items will be clearly marked with the word “Sterling” or the number “925.” “The most sought-after silver is 925 to 929,” notes Collins. He adds that silver from the 19th and early 20th century is marked with the number “800.”
- Silverplate: If an item is silver-plated, it has a thin layer of silver covering some kind of base metal (usually nickel). These pieces will usually be marked with the words “silverplate,” “electroplate,” or “EPNS,” meaning electro-plated nickel silver.
- Sheffield plate: This silver is a layered combination of silver and copper and was used to reduce the cost of sterling silver items.
- Unmarked: If a piece of silver is unmarked, it’s likely silverplate. However, to be certain, follow these instructions to determine if it may be sterling:
- Place the piece in hot water.
- Check the temperature after a few minutes.
- Check the temperature again in another minute or so.
- If your object gets and stays very hot, there’s a good chance it’s sterling silver. If it gets cool quickly or doesn’t reach the temperature of the water, it’s more likely plated.
In addition, when testing silver, Collins recommends that a buyer start with a simple magnet test. Silverplate will stick, sterling will not.
Lifestyle and Focus
Think about your lifestyle and personal tastes and work from there to find pieces that will make the most sense. Ask yourself questions like: “Will I be using my silver every day, or just for special occasions?” While there is no right or wrong way to collect silver or decorative pieces, a good place to start is to settle on a focus area, such as:
- Style – You can collect by style or design movement, such as Art Nouveau or Art Deco.
- Era – Perhaps you have a favorite era or time period, like pieces from the early 19th century.
- Maker – Collectors also make choices based on manufacturer, including Wallace, Tiffany, and more.
- Pattern – You may already be partial towards certain patterns or visual motifs, which may include floral designs, portraits, or shapes.
- Type – Collect by type of silverware or objet de vertu, such as forks or cigarette cases.
“More collectors are focusing on signed pieces or collecting a certain theme, such as coins or dresser items,” says Collins.
Know Your Budget
Silver-plated pieces are often less expensive than sterling, and very rare pieces require a much larger budget. A beginner should consider the following relatively inexpensive silver-plated pieces as a place to start:
- Sugar spoons or shells
- Salt cellars or shakers
- Candy dishes
- Shoe button hooks
To determine a silver item’s provenance, value, and purity, a great starting point is determining the country of origin. This can be done through certain markings. In Europe, common examples include:
- England: Lion’s body
- France: Boar’s head
- Austria: Goddess Diana’s profile
- Germany: Crown
- Italy: Crowned queen’s profile
The movement or era can sometimes identify pieces without a hallmark. Examples include:
- Aesthetic: Pieces made between 1860 and 1890 feature notable elements of this movement, such as nature motifs, simple lines, Asian-inspired imagery, and handmade engravings.
- Art Nouveau: Silver pieces made between 1890 and 1910 feature detailed floral imagery, animals, long-haired women and flowing lines.
- Art Deco: From 1915 to 1935, silver with an Art Deco influence featured geometric shapes, patterned designs, and simple lines.
If elements such as engraved armorials, initials, or dedications are present, the piece will be considered more valuable given the added provenance. For instance, if an initial or engraving is associated with a noble or royal family, that piece will be more highly sought-after by certain collectors.
However, be wary of engravings dishonestly added later on, which will look out of place and more sharp compared to the piece as a whole. Also, as styles evolved, sometimes these markings were removed with a patch or method of wearing, which will also detract from the piece’s value.
Being able to prove the authenticity of a piece of silver is paramount to its value as a collector’s item. Antique silver hallmarks are a good way to determine the genuineness of a piece, along with date and origin. If the piece is unmarked, this does not automatically mean it’s fake, but buyers and collectors need to educate themselves in order to be protected. If a seller can prove that a piece was from a famous maker such as Paul de Lamerie, Hester Bateman, or Paul Storr, they will be able to ask for top dollar.
Silver Melt Value
Today, the melt value of silver greatly affects the price of antique objects. The value of sterling rises and falls in accordance to the melt price for silver metal, including antiques. When the price of silver is low, it’s a good time to buy silver pieces. This, however, is of no concern if you’re only interested in silverplated items.
While your item will almost certainly be worth more than the melt value because it’s antique, the melt value is a good starting point to understand value and price fluctuations. For determining the current melt value of silver, use sites such as SilverRecyclers.com.
Tips for Buying Silver & Vertu Online
- Learn how to identify hallmarks. To help determine authenticity, look up the mark online using sources like the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks, and Makers’ Marks. Once you find the mark’s match, you’ll likely be able to learn about the manufacturer and date of production, which will help when evaluating your piece.
- Ask to see condition reports from auction houses or dealers. What does the documentation say? What does it prove? Are the sources credible?
- If a document serves to authenticate a work, ask who has paid for the authentication, and what warranty is extended to you, in the case that the authentication is later demonstrated to be erroneous.
- Know the provenance. What is the history of the item? Who has owned it?
- Find out if the object has been altered, or if it remains fully intact. What damages or restorations exist? “Submit a condition report and specifically ask for additional photos and a magnet test if you are concerned,” says Collins.
- If you are bidding in an auction, register to bid several days in advance. Each auction house has its own registration requirements. For example, on Invaluable, you must register to bid with each auction house on the platform and wait to be approved. The entire process is straightforward, but is better done a day or two in advance of the sale.
- If you are bidding in an auction, do your research to make sure you are confident that your bid is in line with past prices. Make sure your bid is competitive, but not so high that you’d be significantly overpaying.
- If you are not absolutely certain that you want to win an item at auction, do not bid on it. All sales at an auction are final. For larger items, the auction house will provide a list of good art handling or shipping companies.
- Familiarize yourself with the terms and conditions of online auctions or dealers. Ask questions like:
- How does the auction house or dealer handle taxes?
- If bidding in an auction, will a buyer’s premium be added to the hammer price?
- How will the item be shipped?
- How long do you have to pay for the item?
- How do you contact the auction house or dealer with additional questions?
If there are dents, scratches, broken pieces, heavy corrosion, exposed base metal, etc., the item will be less valuable and should generally be avoided (unless it is a particularly rare piece, which may make up for what it lacks in condition).
Pay close attention to:
- Rims and joints with handles, spouts and feet, which are most prone to damage.
- The surface patina should be flawless — if there are any breaks in patination, it’s likely been repaired or altered in some way.
- At the same time, if the piece is almost unusually white, it has likely been over-cleaned with improper solutions.
Tarnish, which is caused by a natural reaction between silver and contents of the air, is easily removed with the proper methods. That said, if the tarnish is present prior to purchasing, be cautious that it’s not hiding other flaws that could lower its value and usability considerably.
Caring for Silver
Easily tarnished, delicate, and malleable, silver needs consistent attention and care to keep its good condition and to preserve its value. Follow these tips to keep your collection in glowing shape:
- Use the gentlest polish available made only for silver rather than multiple metals.
- Don’t polish unless it’s necessary, because polish in effect removes a small amount of metal. If an item is plated rather than sterling, over polishing can expose base metal and detract value.
- Use a tarnish-proof bag or case for storage to reduce the need for polishing.
- Wash your silver immediately after using them with acidic foods or eggs, which can cause tarnish rather quickly.
- If it’s a practical, non-archaic piece, use it! This will reduce the need to polish, and allow you to enjoy your collection.
Resources & Sources
“Antique Collectors Corner,” The Telegraph
“Why Investors Like Silver More Than Gold,” MarketWatch
Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks, and Makers’ Marks