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Defining the silver lining: 6 collectible types

NEW YORK – Silver is both a precious and a noble metal meaning that it is relatively rare, impervious to corrosion and is quite decorative to a mirror shine. So, just what collectible form does silver take anyway?

When polished, silver has a very high gloss and lends itself well for use as both a decorative item such as mirrors and candlesticks as well as a functional, everyday item like jewelry and coins. Its durability by itself, though, is too malleable and so requires an alloy during production to strengthen it. At times, silver is sometimes the alloy itself. Here are six silver categories in order of value and collectibility – and one that isn’t. 

Fine Silver

Pure 100% silver is just too soft to be used without an alloy such as copper or zinc to provide strength and durability. Utilitarian objects such as teapots or jewelry can be made with fine silver meaning less than 1% alloy, but it tarnishes and scratches easily.

Silver that is nearly pure cannot be used in the manufacturing process because it is too soft and malleable. Instead it is smelted into ingots such as this 10 troy oz. of .999 pure silver as an investment that sold for $200 + buyer’s premium in 2016 when silver was selling at $17.34 a troy oz. Image courtesy: Blackwell Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Mostly, very fine silver is intended as an investment in the form of ingots or coins with virtually no alloy at all. “Fineness” is measured by the “nines” and written as “three nines fine” or stamped as .999 for silver bullion or silver proof coins, for example, which means that .001 percent is considered to be natural impurities. The highest content silver ingot was “five nines fine” or 999.99% pure silver from Bolivia or any Canadian Maple Leaf that is a “four nines fine” or 999.9% pure silver coin. 

Finessness is also defined in other ways. Britannia silver, for example, is .958 silver with an alloy of copper, but still classified as fine silver. Other countries have similar fine silver definitions such as .750 silver from much older German, Austria-Hungarian and Swiss coinage while the United States has silver coinage having 40% silver content from 1965 to 1970.

Vermeil

This is one instance where silver is more the alloy than the final finish. According to U.S. federal regulations, vermeil, (ver’may; also known as silver gilt), “… consists of a base of sterling silver coated or plated on all significant surfaces with gold or gold alloy of not less than 10-karat fineness.”  The most famous vermeil is a collection of flatware used for official state functions at the White House purchased in 1956 from the estate of Margaret Thompson Biddle. 

Vermeil is a less expensive process than producing something in a higher grade of gold and is lighter and more durable. The crown jewels of England, for example, are mostly vermeil, much to the disappointment of those who overthrew Charles I when they tried to sell them. While the silver may be at least the quality of sterling silver, the thin gold overlay gives it a higher auction value. 

This set of vermeil flatware is an example where silver is the alloy, not the overlay. It gleams as if gold, but vermeil (or silver gilt) is more durable, lightweight and less expensive to manufacture. This 84-piece flatware set by Tiffany & Co. sold for $1,500 + buyer’s premium in 2019. Image courtesy: Butterscotch Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Sterling Silver

Candelabras, flatware, photo frames, decorative bowls, jewelry, rings and so many collectible and decorative objects are labeled as sterling silver. It means that 92.5% of its total weight is pure silver. The rest is usually copper or another harder metal like bronze to provide strength. Since 1868 in the U.S. and earlier elsewhere, each sterling piece needs to be legally hallmarked (stamped) with .925 or the word “sterling” to identify it as sterling silver along with the stamp, or hallmark, of the silversmith who produced it. 

The most prominent pieces of sterling silver would be flatware produced from about 1840 to 1940 in Europe and the United States, particularly from well-known silversmiths like Paul Revere. Production of sterling silver flatware declined markedly after 1940 as mass production using hard plastics and other more accessible materials made them easier to keep clean and were more affordable. 

A group of sterling and coin silver cups, creamers, and gravy boats sold at auction for $1,200 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Some were monogrammed and hallmarked by Stieff and other silver companies. Image courtesy Cottone Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Coin Silver

For most of early American history, official coinage was 90% silver and 10% alloy such as nickel or copper. But there was relatively little silver to produce other commercial products such as flatware, plates, bowls or tea services. Instead, coins were melted down and repurposed, as we say today. The resulting new teapot, bowl or flatware was sometimes stamped with “coin” or “pure coin,” but not consistently. And because the fineness of coins varied, so did the silver fineness of the new object. However, today coin silver is defined as 90% silver that may be hallmarked with .900. 

Silverplate and Sheffield Silver

What can be made with sterling silver can also be made as silver-plate providing greater access to a wider consumer market at less cost. Instead of mostly sterling silver overlaying a thin layer of alloy, a thin layer of silver was electrically bonded to an item that was mostly alloy such as copper. The results are similar to sterling, except it is much lighter and over time the thin layer of silver-plate, depending on its thickness, can separate from the underlying alloy especially in humid conditions. 

An American silver-plated 19th century biscuit box sold for only $60 + buyer’s premium in 2019 despite its fine engraving and charming style. Image courtesy: Hartzell’s Auction Gallery Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

The process of adding a thin layer of silver over an alloy was discovered in 1740, by accident as the story goes, in Sheffield, England. With early Sheffield silver (as it is now known), edges were noticeably soldered with a ‘sandwich’ of thin silver rolled between alloy over both inside and outside a bowl. By 1840, electroplating was more commercially productive and early Sheffield silver is now quite collectible. Weighted silver is just another term for silverplate as it is mostly an alloy with a thin overlay of silver. Silverplate is not usually stamped or hallmarked as the amount of silver overlay isn’t of sufficient quantity to qualify for regulation or inspection.

Antique Silver

Silver objects that can be traced back through hallmarks at least 100 years can be classified at auction as “antique silver,” especially before the advent of mass production and the discovery of silver in the late 1850s in Nevada. More of the items were handmade or produced in smaller quantities. For that reason, silver objects before 1860 have a particularly higher auction value for collectors than a similar item produced more recently. Still, silver items produced before 1940 will be classified as antique silver, too. It’s the hallmark that will tell its true age. 

And The One Silver That Isn’t

Nickel Silver 

If it looks like silver and feels like silver, it could be just nickel instead. Known as German silver, nickel mimics silver, but with a duller shine. Any item that is not marked as sterling silver or silver-plate would be composed of 60% copper, 20% zinc with a top overlay of 20% nickel. 

Nickel is an overlay of mostly copper and zinc to mimic silver, except nickel silver, as it is called, has more of a duller shine when polished as this nickel silver tea set shows that sold for $150 + buyer’s premium in 2012. Image courtesy Stephenson’s Auction and LiveAuctioneers

Generally speaking, nickel silver has no silver content at all. Only its name suggests that there is because it can appear to shine like silver. The difference can be determined simply by rubbing it with a cloth. If it shines brighter (and it is a duller shine than silver), it is nickel. Silver requires more of a polishing agent to remove tarnish and has more of a mirror finish. If you see the letters EPNS on zippers, for example, it is an acronym for “electroplated nickel silver.”

Weighing Silver

While there are different ways that silver is used, they will all be weighed for its silver content the same way (except sterling-plate). Get the total weight, then subtract the percentage of alloy to get its silver content. Whether buying or selling silver, weight should be only in troy ounces. 

There are two types of ounces to be aware of: troy ounce (t oz) and avoirdupois ounce (avdp or standard). A troy ounce is 31.10 grams while the standard avdp ounce is 28.35 grams. So if you are buying by the troy ounce, but selling at the standard ounce, the difference is already 3.5% in the dealer’s favor. Be sure that the scale that weighs your silver shows it as 31.10, not 28.35. 

Knowing the percentage of silver to alloy will make the difference as to its value and collectibility, even if the silver content isn’t quite bullion, but is just a favorite for everyday use or special occasions.

Jasper52 auction March 4 devoted to decorative art, silver

Exquisite European ceramics, impressive sterling silver flatware and hollowware, and colorful Murano glass are among the unique treasures in a decorative art auction that will be conducted Wednesday, March 4, by Jasper52.

Barbedienne-style French gold-plated bronze Louis XVI mantel clock and two matching candelabra, early 1800s. Estimate: $39,000-$47,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Sterling silver featured in Jasper52 auction Feb. 4

A Jasper52 online auction on Tuesday, Feb. 4, will set the table with time-honored 18th- to 21st-century silver pieces. From Gorham to Georg Jensen, Reed & Barton and more, this collection features renowned names in the art of silversmithing. As the most versatile of precious metals, silver stands as both the backdrop and center stage of a tastefully decorated home.

Reed & Barton Francis I sterling flatware service for 12, 161 pieces in excellent unpolished vintage condition. Estimate: $8,000-$10,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Sterling flatware sets featured in Jasper52 auction Jan. 8

More than 100 lots of exquisite decorative arts are offered in an online auction that will be conducted Wednesday, Jan. 8, by Jasper52. Sterling silver is an important segment of the sale that includes a 290-piece hallmarked set of French flatware worthy of a palace.

French sterling silver flatware set, 290 pieces, 20th century. Estimate: $30,000-$36,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Weighing in on gold and silver

Silver and gold can be weighed two different ways. If you’re not careful, you can be selling at the lower weight but buying at the higher weight. It’s important to know the differences so you don’t end up on the losing end when involved in a precious metal transaction.

Gold and silver are the only two of the “seven metals of antiquity” (the others being tin, lead, mercury, copper and iron) that are known to occur as native metal, ones that occur in pure form. For at least 40,000 years, gold and silver have been in the forefront of finance, ornamentation, technology and even space exploration.

Yet, weighing gold and silver isn’t quite the exact science it should be. There are different ways to measure just how much of these precious metals we buy and sell, yet there are easy ways to convert each onto a level playing field for all.

Gold as gram: A 35 gram gold nugget offered at auction sold for $1,800 in 2018. With a troy ounce spot price of $1,332.73 in 2018, the value of the nugget is $1,499.86 if it were 24K. Most nuggets of over 1 ounce are unusual and may still have inclusions of other metals. Image courtesy BK Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.com

Troy ounce vs. standard ounce in grams

There are two types of ounces to be aware of: troy ounce (t oz) and avoirdupois ounce (avdp or standard). So if you are buying by the troy ounce, but selling at the standard ounce, the difference is already 3.5% in the dealer’s favor.

The reason is that a troy ounce is 31.10 grams while the standard avdp ounce is 28.35 grams. Be sure that the scale that weighs your gold and silver shows it as 31.10, not 28.35.

Pennyweights (dwt)

Occasionally, an auction will show gold offered in pennyweight. There are 20 pennyweight to a troy ounce. Simply take the pennyweight, shown as dwt, and divide by 20 to get the troy ounce in total weight then multiply by the karat to get the troy ounce in gold, then multiply by the spot price of gold that day for its value.

Gold as pennyweight: A simple 18K gold ring from Tiffany weighed in at 9.30 dwt, which equals .348 troy ounce with a value of $581.46 with a price of gold at $1,667.27 at the time. Image courtesy Carlsen Gallery Inc. and LiveAuctioneers

Measuring gold in karats

Gold is measured by troy ounce but also by karat, which designates the amount of gold that is usually offset by a harder alloy to strengthen it. The amount of gold versus the amount of another metal determines the karat: 8K is 33.3% pure (.333), 10K is 41.6% pure (.416), 14K is 58.3% pure (.583),16K is 66.6% pure (.666), 18K is 75% pure (.750),  22K is 91.6% pure (.916), 24K is 100% pure (1.00).

Measuring silver content

Silver is measured by the amount used in any piece of jewelry or decorative item. Sterling silver, for example, is 92.5% silver and usually 7.5% copper. It is hallmarked (stamped) with the word “sterling,” “ster” or the number .925 either on the bottom or on the underside of the item. The item actually feels rather heavy as well.

Silverplate, on the other hand, is mostly base metal with a thin layer of pure silver that has been electroplated to give it the shine and brilliance of silver. If it isn’t stamped, it is silver-plated. It actually feels rather light compared to the sterling.

Silver as sterling: A set of Gorham sterling silver tureens with a total weight of 74 troy ounces of silver at $32.26 a troy ounce in 2012 with a value of $2,413.88 that sold for $3,000. Image courtesy Millea Bros. Ltd. and LiveAuctioneers

Coin silver is usually defined as having 90% silver and 10% copper, but depending on the melted coins used there could be a difference between having 75% to 90% silver.

One way to know how much silver an item has is to cut a small piece from an inconspicuous area of an item, but this is destructive. An X-ray fluorescence (XRF) device, while non-destructive, measures only the base silver nearer the surface and misses entirely the type of base metal alloy underneath, thereby misreading the content of silver overall.

Testing a silver item that is marked as pure silver can be done by setting an ice cube on it. If it melts quickly it is pure silver. Use a magnet to see if it sticks. If it does, it is mostly base metal. A commercial silver testing kit uses nitric acid to see if it tarnishes at a predictable rate.

Silver as plate: A complete five-piece Art Nouveau silver-plated tea set of sold for $2,400, not for its unmarked silver content, but from its artistic design. Most silver-plated tea services will auction for $50 to $150. Image courtesy Clarke Auction Gallery and LiveAuctoneers.com

Things to know

When gold and silver are being weighed, it should be done in front of you. The scale should be at least two decimal places (31.10) to show it is being weighed as troy ounces, not in grams or pennyweight. Sending gold and silver to an offsite location by delivery service won’t allow the collector to know if it was weighed as troy ounce or a standard ounce.

Offsite locations (where you send your gold elsewhere to be weighed) will typically offer 70% or so of the spot price that day. You should be expecting 90% of the spot price or more.

If a dealer wants to sell you numismatic or “collectible” coins instead of buying your gold or silver outright by suggesting that the coins are “outperforming bullion by more than 2 to 1 … charging only … a 1 percent fee,” according to an AARP investigation, he is involved with a boiler room operation. The markup for each coin is wildly astronomical and a collector will always have trouble selling them later. This bait-and-switch tactic is not what a reputable dealer will ever suggest.

Reputable dealers will ask for your personal identification when selling gold and silver. This is to comply with federal regulations to combat money laundering and to verify against stolen goods.

Buying and selling of gold and silver at hotel shows, those offering free appraisals, answering 800 ads, getting a cold call from a so-called dealer, among other types of misrepresentations should always be avoided. Buyer beware is still the watchword. “Consumers need to do their due diligence,” says Kathy McFadden, executive director of the Industry Council for Tangible Assets, “Just as they would if buying a car or asking a contractor to come into their home. There is no difference.”

In the world of gold and silver, buy the book before you buy the coin. In other words, learn what you can first. That is the safest way to hedge against your own inflation.

Decorative arts auction June 19 has emphasis on silver

Beautiful decorative art – with an emphasis on sterling silver – worthy of a well-appointed home are offered in a Jasper52 online auction that will be conducted Wednesday, June 19. Going up for bid early in the 129-lot auction is an eight-piece Art Deco sterling silver tea set by Christofle/Cardeilhac of France.

Christofle/Cardeilhac eight-piece Art Deco sterling silver tea set. Estimate: $14,000-$17,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Jasper52 serves up sterling silver, exquisite jewelry April 28

Fine jewelry and decorative arts inspired by Miami Beach living will be the exclusive fare of an online auction conducted by Jasper52 on Sunday, April 28. From Van Cleef & Arpels Alhambra and Cartier Panthere jewelry to the finest French silver, this special sale features only the best in jewelry, watches, decorative art and silver.

Cartier Panthere 18K yellow gold bracelet watch. Estimate: $54,000-$65,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

English silver retains look, feel of royalty

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.

This double-handled covered cup is one of the earliest works by Paul de Lamerie, a Dutch-born silversmith who became one of London’s best craftsmen. Photo courtesy of M.S. Rau Antiques, New Orleans.

“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.”

This George III English silver epergne, London, 1768, marks for Emick Romer, brought $24,000 in November 2018 at Brunk Auctions. Photo courtesy of Brunk Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

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.

This important English silver centerpiece sold for $17,000 in November 2017 at The Popular Auction. Photo courtesy of The Popular Auction and LiveAuctioneers.

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.

A pair of English sterling silver servers with ivory handles made $25,000 in May 2015 at Clars Auction Gallery. Photo courtesy of Clars Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers.

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.”

A Moses Montefiore silver Sabbath goblet having a tulip form bowl, London, 1881, made $22,000 in February 2015 at Pasarel. Photo courtesy of Pasarel and LiveAuctioneers.

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.”

A Manchester Cup silver trophy, Elkington & Co., Birmingham, 1903, realized $18,000 in June 2018 at Dan Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Dan Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

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.

Sterling silver gleams in Jasper52 decorative arts auction Feb. 5

More than 200 fine furnishings to adorn a comfortable home are offered in an online auction to be conducted by Jasper52 on Tuesday, Feb. 5. The emphasis is on silver including items by Georg Jensen and Tiffany and Co.

Georg Jensen, sterling silver compote, Denmark. Estimate: $1,500-$2,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Lustrous sterling silver in the spotlight at online auction Oct. 10

Time-honored silver items are the focus of a Jasper52 online auction Oct. 10. Lots range from 18th-century trays and teapots to 20th-century Georg Jensen and Tiffany flatware.

Gorham sterling silver soup tureen, Providence, R.I., 1892, Neoclassical style, 15in across the handles, 63.2 troy ounces. Estimate: $2,000-$2,500. Jasper52 image

View the auction.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.