NEW YORK – Collecting silver not only offers the tactile pleasure of holding a fine three-dimensional object expertly crafted but it also appeals to the eye. Akin to a piece of “statement jewelry,” fine works of art in silver make an elegant tableau. From elegant cutlery with scalloped or repousse handles to architectural candlesticks and a striking centerpiece with a profusion of cast elements, no table is complete without good silver.
English silver, particularly Georgian (1714-1830) and Regency (1811-1820) period examples, are highly desirable.
“In regard to silver, during the Early Georgian period (1714-1760), Queen Anne style reigned supreme, marked by simple, elegant forms and minimal decoration,” said Deborah Choate, sales consultant at M.S. Rau Antiques in a blog. “However, around 1725, elements of the exuberant Baroque and Rococo styles began to appear. By the Late Georgian period (1760-1811), a Neoclassical esthetic prevailed, which harkens back to the classical forms of antiquity, particularly the art and architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome.”
Among the best-known British silversmiths in this era were Hester Bateman (1704-1794) and Paul Storr (1771-1844). Bateman became one of the best-known woman silversmiths after her husband died. At age 51, she took over his silver business and defied convention at the time, creating elegantly simple works even though the Rococo style was in vogue.
Storr also favored a minimalist aesthetic in keeping with the Neoclassical style, creating plain and unembellished forms that often featured naturalistic designs. While much of his tableware was simple, he did create lavish pieces for royalty and made most of the silver bought by King George III and King George IV.
In sharp contrast to its predecessor, Regency era silver is the most sumptuous and striking of English silver styles. Ornately embellished with scrolling acanthus and shell accents or having cast details like a lion’s head on the spout of an urn, Regency silver overall was a diverse grouping encompassing bold decoration and expert craftsmanship the extent of which has seldom been seen since.
Becoming a scholar of English silver means one is introduced the world of hallmarks, of which there are many. Hallmarks do more than merely identify the silversmith, a series of marks also convey how pure the silver is, its origin and age or that duties were properly paid as well as the assay office certifying the piece. Books as well as online reference guides can provide exhaustive information to identifying pieces.
“Collecting silver need not break the bank and a Charles Horner silver thimble might cost you around £10 at auction, a hat pin by the same maker around £30-£40 and an enamel and silver pendant by him around £200,” according to an article posted by Richard Winterton Auctioneers on its website. “At the other end of the spectrum Georgian and Regency silver by some of the most famous British silversmiths can sell for over £100,000 but there is much more to be had in the £100-£1,000 price bracket.”
Even in America, museums are devoted collectors with sublime examples finding their way into permanent collections in renowned institutions, such as the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, which in a 2010 press release announced the gift of 50 choice pieces of English silver from collector Rita R. Gans of New York, transforming the museum’s collection. At the time, VMFA Director Alex Nyerges said it was “the most important and fabulous gift of English silver in memory in many years to any museum in the world.”
Some collectors collect only one form, such as candlesticks or epergnes while others seek out the best forms from one maker, and for others, it’s silver wares associated with one period or king.
For new collectors, a great way to start collecting silver is to start small either by focusing on smalls like silver thimbles or snuff boxes or if you favor larger pieces, adding one covered dish or teapot at a time. Learning is a lifelong process and while you educate yourself on the myriad of hallmarks pieces are engraved with, you will also absorb some of the social history of each piece. The more pieces you see and handle, the better you will train your eye and you will start to know the feel and weight of a piece, judge its patina, flaws and quality.