With a pedigree that includes providing weaponry to Union Army soldiers and officers during the Civil War, athlete medals for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, and flatware for White House dinners in more contemporary times, Reed & Barton silver remains popular on the second-hand market.
What is typically brought to auction is silverware patterns, but it’s not uncommon to find Reed & Barton silver bells, trays/ platters, urns/ planters, tea sets, bowls, baby cups and coffee pots as well. These lots, all crafted from sterling silver, are often found today on auction sites such as Invaluable.com. All are ornate in nature and, for seasoned auctioneers or collectors, easy to identify in age based on physical attributes. The Reed & Barton stamp must also be visible and deemed authentic.
Origins in Massachusetts
Reed & Barton operated in Taunton, Massachusetts from its 1824 founding until the company filed for bankruptcy in 2015. (If you’ve ever heard Taunton referred to as Silver City, this prominent silversmithing business is why!) Lenox Corporation – a competitor also based on the East Coast, in Bristol, Pennsylvania – acquired Reed & Barton’s operating assets post-bankruptcy. But the name of the company hasn’t always been Reed & Barton; that was the name given after some of its bold young employees, including Charles E. Barton and Henry G. Reed (only in their 20’s), snapped up the company when it ran into financial difficulty in 1834 (at this point it became known as Leonard, Reed & Barton, and in 1940 the Leonard was dropped and the company simply renamed Reed & Barton).
The first products produced by the company in its early years, when it was still known by its previous title, Babbitt & Crossman, were not silverware at all, but rather pewter initially, and then Britannia metal, a white metal alloy made from tin, antimony, and copper, from which the company became popular for their flatware and holloware. As fashions changed and technologies developed, Reed & Barton pioneered techniques in silverware – and in particular, in silver plating.
By the late 1880s, when mining operations at the Comstock Lode (the most bountiful silver mine in the USA, discovered in 1857) had reached their peak, the market for silverware was flooded with solid sterling silver objects. Reed & Barton shifted their focus towards sterling silver, and dedicated an entire factory to producing silver objects.
During World War II, Reed & Barton shifted their production again towards stainless steel, but this time for use in the war effort rather than commerce, such as surgical instruments for the army. But following the war, the firm’s production moved back to silverware, as returning servicemen sought gifts for their loved ones.
With the boom and subsequent crash in the silver market in the late 1970s and ’80s, Reed & Barton were one of few manufacturers to take a stand against the extreme discounting practices used by retailers to encourage the public to part with their money. Reed & Barton considered this practice to be misrepresentation, with the aim of confusing customers. In the early 1980s, Reed & Barton took five of their business rivals to court with a charge of “false advertising concerning the price of their products.” The success of the case brought about a step change in the ethics employed in 1980s advertising practices.
The company’s manufacturing past is such a part of American history that, since 1984, its factory has been on the US National Register of Historic Places. Sadly production came to a halt in 2015 as the company filed for bankruptcy. The Reed & Barton property along Taunton’s Mill River includes two brick buildings dating back to between 1830 and 1890, as well as housing for mill workers used as far back as 1855.
Auction Lots and Items Over the Years
The Gio Ponti line was designed in 1958 in collaboration with Italian architect and industrial designer, Gio Ponti (1891-1979), best known for his Superleggera chair and several buildings throughout Italy, including the Pirelli Tower in Milan.
Estimate: $10,000 – $15,000
Sale price: $30,000
Auction Date: June 6, 2018
Crafted in 1928, this 7.5-inch tall sterling vase resided in private collections in Florida and New York before going up for auction. Hosted by Sotheby’s, the vase was included in a lot called Important Design that sold for $8,993,250 total, also featuring Carlo Mollino’s “Lattes” and “Copenhagen” bent-plywood chairs, numerous Gustav Stickley items, and a stained-glass window from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Avery Coonley Playhouse (that alone was estimated at $250,000 to $300,000).
Auction Date: December 14, 2016
Reed & Barton Flatware Service (135 pieces)
Although the pattern is not specified, the lot description from Selkirk Auctions clarifies its contents: dinner forks (12), dinner knives (24), dinner spoons (46), dessert spoons (12), salad forks (13), tablespoons (4), iced-tea spoons (4) and large serving spoons (5), plus 15 assorted serving utensils, a mix of small and large.
Sale price: $2,125
Auction Date: June 20, 2020
Reed & Barton’s Shining Future
Considered heirloom pieces in many families, if you are holding onto Reed & Barton flatware you may have valuable items in your possession. Consider getting them appraised and learning more about the style/pattern your set or sets are linked to. As recently as mid-May, a 157-piece set (18 services) of sterling silver flatware was put up for auction on eBay for $10,500. But it’s also worth noting that most auctions for Reed & Barton flatware don’t start that high. You may be able to snap up a set for a few thousand dollars, or a few hundred if you don’t desire as many services (place settings).
Caring for your Antique Silver
There are a few things you need to know in order to keep antique silver (including prized pieces of Reed & Barton) pristine. Otherwise, they may lose their market value. This handy guide to cleaning silver is a great place to start. What causes tarnish? It could be the humidity levels or contact with chemicals in your home (difficult to avoid as even hand lotion contains chemicals). The good news is that this undesirable effect can be easily removed with the aid of soft, non-abrasive cloths and store-bought silver cleaners.