Posts

Gorham silver shines as brightly as ever

Wright sold a Donald Colflesh Circa 70 coffee service with tray in June 2012 for $25,000, which is still a house record for the Gorham silver design.

For centuries, American silversmiths could not afford to play. The precious metal was too scarce and pricey for artisans to take a flyer on a cutting-edge silverware pattern, no matter how fun and fashionable it might seem.

Everything changed when news of the discovery of the Comstock Lode spread in 1859. The biggest silver strike on American soil freed the country’s silversmiths to experiment. None embraced this freedom more ardently than the Gorham Manufacturing Company of Providence, Rhode Island.

Founded in 1831, it jumped to the front of its pack of rivals and stayed there by offering a wide variety of silver patterns, ultimately releasing more than 100. During its late 19 th century peak, it relentlessly presented America’s middle class with hot new must-haves ranging from ice cream hatchets to grape shears to sardine tongs.

Rago sold a 1929 Gorham silver cocktail set containing a shaker and 12 cups for $10,000 in October 2018.

In that same period, Gorham employed thousands, including almost 200 in its New York store on Broadway. The company grabbed attention at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago with a display that boasted a six-foot-tall sculpture of Christopher Columbus made from more than a ton of silver and cast in a single pour. (The statue was melted down after the fair ended.) Pieces bearing the Gorham hallmark rank as some of the best created in the medium in the 19th and 20th centuries.

None of that was enough to save Gorham from the effects of huge cultural shifts in how Americans lived their lives, but its past glories helped buy it a few more decades of relevance before it effectively disappeared in 1967. Today, the company’s gleaming record of achievement, along with its fundamental refusal to stick its customers with the same patterns it offered to their parents and grandparents and rest on its laurels, makes Gorham silver a favorite among collectors.

A late 19 th century Gorham Martele silver tea and coffee service fetched $18,000 at Rago in April 2018.

“Gorham is a superb example of American craftsmanship with a devoted collecting base globally,” said Megan Whippen, senior specialist at Wright. “As someone that works mostly with early 20 th century pieces, Gorham, as a firm, continued to define what modern was in their pioneering silver designs. Even in their selection of artists they were conscious of the interests of their buyers.”

Gorham’s last triumph as an innovator in silver was Circa 70, a tea and coffee service designed by Donald Colflesh. In June 2012, Wright offered a complete Circa 70 set, containing a hard-to-find but much-coveted matching tray that was released a few years after the original set. Estimated at $20,000-$30,000, it sold for $25,000, and remains a house record for that particular item of Gorham silver. “One of my favorite details on the Circa 70 service is that it was designed in 1958. The name demonstrates the forward thinking that is so majestically captured in the form,” Whippen said, adding, “Colflesh was hired by Gorham just after he graduated from Pratt, and I have always felt that New York City and its modern buildings and energy informed these soaring forms.”

Today, the Circa 70 silver service exudes retro-cool, but imagine how futuristic it must have seemed in the late 1950s. Gorham silver always included conservative, traditionalist offerings while demonstrating a willingness to push the envelope well before that phrase became a cliche.

Gorham silver deliberately aimed for the moon with its Martele line. Launched in 1897 by in-house designer William Christmas Codman, it drew its name from the French verb marteler, which means “to hammer.” Each piece of Martele is technically a one-off; the labor-intensive manufacturing process ensures that no examples are strictly identical, even if two or more take the same form. “Martele is like a different species. It really is the epitome of high-style handwork in sterling,” said Russ Carlsen of the Carlsen Gallery in Freehold, New York. “It deserves the audience it has. It’s pretty spectacular material. You’re talking about rich people’s silverware. It’s above and beyond.”

An 1899 Gorham Martele vase standing almost 19 inches tall and containing almost 80 troy ounces of silver commanded $60,000 at Carlsen Gallery Inc. in September 2013.

In September 2013, Carlsen offered a Gorham silver Martele pattern vase dating to 1899, which contained almost 80 troy ounces of silver and stood almost 19 inches tall. Estimated at $2,000 to $5,000, it rocketed to $60,000. “I remember it very vividly,” he said, adding that though he was surprised by the result, “I thought it was worth every penny of it. It was substantial. It had scale, which is important. It was very large and flashy, and the craftsmanship was undeniably the best.” Carlson said that if the vase was reconsigned to him now, “It probably would do better in today’s world, because the cream of the crop continues to excel.”

The Gorham silver company also enjoys the good fortune of having had its archives, and many of its greatest masterpieces, land in the hands of curators who love it, understand it, and want to share it with the public. The holdings of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) contain almost 5,000 items of Gorham silver and related material, such as design drawings and other company records. In 2019, RISD mounted a blockbuster exhibit titled Gorham Silver: Designing Brilliance 1850-1970 that raised the profile of the brand and introduced it to a 21st century audience who grew up with little or no genuine silver tableware in their homes. Obviously, it’s too late to see the show, but RISD keeps A-list pieces on view such as a Martele writing table and chair that consumed 10,000 hours of labor and 75 pounds of silver, and also Erik Magnussen’s 1927 Cubist coffee service, a bracingly modern design that was evidently a bit too modern for Gorham, as it never advanced past the prototype stage.

Setting aside the pieces created for world’s fairs, much of what Gorham made had a mundane purpose and function—to hold flowers, to serve food, to convey morsels to the mouth. We no longer live in the world for which Gorham silver was made, but our world still has a place for it. In June 2018, D.G.W. Auctioneers in Sunnyvale, California offered a set of flatware from Gorham’s St. Cloud (pronounced “San Cloo”) pattern. Described as “extensive,” the set didn’t just merit the term, it required it. Numbering 206 pieces and containing a total of 254 troy ounces of silver, it was estimated at $4,000-$6,000 and sold for $16,000.

A 206-piece set of Gorham flatware in the St. Cloud pattern sold for $16,000 at D.G.W Auctioneers in June 2018.

Patricia Knight, a longtime dealer and appraiser of silver who has served as a consultant to the California auction house, was not surprised to see it sell so well. “To have a gigantic set like this, all one pattern, all with the same monogram, knowing it’s very rare, very important–that provoked desire in bidders,” she said, explaining that the St. Cloud pattern was designed by Antoine Heller, a French silversmith who Gorham lured away from Tiffany; it had a relatively short lifespan on the market, perhaps about five years; and it has not been revived or reproduced.

The flatware set also contained Gorham silver items that are relatively tough to find. “Some of the pieces in there are very rare—individual knives, ladles, big, heavy pieces,” she said. “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the asparagus tongs sell for $1,000 in and of themselves.” Though the set sold for almost three times its high estimate, by Knight’s calculations, the bidder walked away with a bargain; $16,000 divided by 206 works out to $77.66 per piece. She is convinced that if the set was consigned to auction today, it could “definitely” sell for far more. “I would market it as an original set, all the same monogram, a very heavy, very rare pattern from Gorham,” she said. “If you wanted something really sensational for your table, it could get up to $25,000 or $30,000.”

Whippen, Carlsen, and Knight agree that Gorham silver will always have an audience who targets and collects the brand specifically. People seek Gorham by name now; there’s no reason to believe they will ever stop. “Nobody has a problem selling Gorham,” Knight said. “Say the name, and you hear, “Ah, a good company that has a good reputation.”

Gorham silver shines as brightly as ever

Jasper52 auction heavy into French sterling silver Jan. 13

French sterling silver abounds in an Exquisite Decorative Arts online auction that Jasper52 will conduct on Wednesday, Jan. 13. Two magnificent Louis XVI-style tea/coffee sets are offered as well as several large sets of flatware.

Louis XVI sterling silver tea/coffee set by Puiforcat, eight pieces, 1850-1899. Reserve: $24,549; estimate: $29,000-$35,000.

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Sterling silver at the heart of Jasper52 auction Oct. 28

Nearly 350 lots of decorative arts, exquisite finery for the home, are offered in an online auction that will be conducted by Jasper52 on Wednesday, Oct. 28.

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

Jean Puiforcat: French silversmith-sculptor extraordinaire

NEW YORK – Jean Puiforcat (1897-1945), the French silversmith, sculptor and designer with the quirky, adorable last name (it’s pronounced “pwee-for-KAH”), was once described by Miller’s Antiques Encyclopedia as “the most important French Art Deco silversmith.” His name, in fact, has become synonymous with Art Deco glamor. Even in his day, Puiforcat was renowned for the elegant, often mathematical simplicity of his geometric forms and the unexpected combination of flawless metalwork executed with brilliantly polished hardstones, semiprecious stones or glass.

101-piece Jean E. Puiforcat Cannes pattern silver flatware service for 24, designed 1928. Marks: (E-penknife-P), (Minerva), PUIFORCAT, FRANCE 10 1/8 inches, 162.02 troy ounces. Service with banded necks and geometric outlined handles, est. $5,000-$7,000, sold for $21,250 at an auction held May 5, 2020 by Heritage Auctions in Dallas. Image courtesy of Heritage Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Puiforcat didn’t simply emerge from obscurity to become the legendary silversmith that his legacy commands. He was born into the prominent silversmith family of Puiforcat and his brother-in-law was the modernist architect Luis Estevez. Puiforcat complemented his hereditary links to design by actively engaging with prominent designers, sculptors and architects of his era.

After serving in World War I, he apprenticed in Paris as a silversmith and designer under the Ecole des Beaux-Arts-educated sculptor Louis-Aime Lejeune. His silver work had fine smooth surfaces and was based on the geometric seriesIvoryonyxlapis lazuli and rosewood were used to decorate pieces. He also used gilding.

Pair of French first standard silver and ruby glass vases designed by Jean E. Puiforcat, Paris, 15¼ inches tall, each with Mercury export marks to rim and foot. Feet marked with EP (Emile Puiforcat) losenge and Jean E. Puiforcat, est. $10,000-$15,000, sold for $29,900 at an auction held Nov. 18, 2018 by Andrew Jones Auctions in Los Angeles. Image courtesy of Andrew Jones Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Following his contribution to the 1925 Exposition Internationale des Arts Décoratifs et Industriels Modernes in Paris, Puiforcat’s status as a leading silversmith of 20th century design began to grow. In 1926, a tea service he designed was purchased for the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Puiforcat left Paris and moved to Saint-Jean-de-Luz around 1927 and he worked briefly in Havana, Cuba from 1928 through 1930. He started designing tableware and by 1934 also had designed liturgical silver. After he moved to Mexico in 1941, he started exhibiting in the United States. Puiforcat was a member of the Société des Artistes Decorateurs, which he left to become a founding member of the Union des Artistes Modernes.

Jean-Emile Puiforcat pen holder made from sterling silver and rosewood, impressed with the manufacturer’s mark and touchmarks to underside ‘Puiforcat France,’ patina to silver surfaces in keeping with age, in excellent vintage condition, est. $1,000-$1,500, sold for $1,040 at an auction held June 6, 2019 by Wright in Chicago. Image courtesy of Wright and LiveAuctioneers

Puiforcat’s work has appeared in countless periodicals and magazines, touting the designer’s bold creations and praising him as the preeminent silversmith of his day. His enduring legacy can be evidenced by a retrospective that took place in Paris in 1947, only two years after his death. Important artists of the 20th century like Andy Warhol were fervent collectors of his work. The Warhol collection is especially noteworthy because it was sold in its entirety at auction through Sotheby’s in 1988 for the staggering sum of $451,000. A single tureen brought $55,000. Warhol first began collecting Puiforcat silverware after acquiring some pieces in Paris in the 1970s.

“Jean Puiforcat’s designs were so striking because his pieces broke away from the complicated, naturalistic, and fussy patterns of the past and instead embraced sleek and simplified contemporary forms,” said Charlotte Taylor, director of Fine & Decorative Arts at Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Falls Church, Va. “He successfully married fine craftsmanship with modernism, exemplifying the faith in social and technological progress that dominated culture between the two world wars. His legacy still continues today as he is still widely considered to be one of the pillars upon which the European Art Deco movement and modern silversmithing were built.”

Four Jean Puiforcat Art Deco silver cups marked “Jean Puiforcat/Paris” on the underside. Hallmark of EP and Minerva at rim, 2¾ inches tall, est. $1,000-$2,000, sold for $726 at an auction held June 20, 2015 by Quinn’s Auction Galleries in Charlottesville, Va. Image courtesy of Quinn’s and LiveAuctioneers

Nick Coombs, a specialist in the Fine Furniture, Decorative Arts & Silver department at Hindman in Chicago, said Jean Puiforcat emerged as the standard-bearer for Art Deco silversmiths, not through a strict adherence to the movement’s aesthetic, but rather by interpreting timeless questions about proportion, ornament and beauty through his work. “In doing so,” Coombs said, “Puiforcat’s work captivated his contemporaries and continues to command reverence among silver collectors in the 21st century.”

Coombs continued, “Puiforcat’s work is firmly grounded as a response to earlier movements’ reliance on ornamentation, relying on the belief that mathematical formulae could be the source of beauty in design. A proponent of the ‘golden ratio,’ Puiforcat sought methods of design that had been pioneered during the Renaissance in the 16th century to answer questions of style and beauty in the 20th century. His works, while speaking for the aesthetic of the age, still respond to questions that are timeless, thus allowing his work to remain relevant despite changes of taste.”

French Art Deco silver-plated tea and coffee service, Jean-Emile Puiforcat, designed in 1928, Etchea pattern, comprising a coffeepot, teapot, creamer, sugar and a serving tray, each stamped ‘EP’ and ‘Puiforcat France’, width of serving tray 27½ inches, sold for $3,024 at an auction held Jan. 24, 2019 by Hindman in Chicago. Image courtesy of Hindman and LiveAuctioneers

Many museums hold Puiforcat’s works in their collections, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York. “Today his pieces are still collected and can sell well above their estimates,” Charlotte Taylor said. She pointed to his “Bayonne” flatware set, which hammered for $65,000 on an estimate of $30,000 – $40,000 at Phillips Auction house in 2018; and last year, when Rago Auction House sold a “Biarritz” patented flatware set for $42,500 on an estimate of $25,000-$35,000. “These numbers reflect a trend in the sale of his works that has gone on for decades,” she said.

Jean Puiforcat sterling silver and wood covered bowl, stamped to the underside with hallmark of Jean Puiforcat, ‘Sterling, Jean Puiforcat, Made in Mexico,’ circa 1942-1945. 66.32 troy ounces, excluding wooden handles, 9¼ inches in diameter, 6 inches tall, sold for $13,750 at an auction held July 22, 2018 by Clarke Auction Gallery in Larchmont, N.Y. Image courtesy of Clarke Auction Gallery and LiveAuctioneers

Nick Coombs said that, despite a slight downturn in the market for Art Deco furniture and decorative arts in the auction community over the past decade, the works of Jean Puiforcat continue to be actively sought after for collectors of both silver and decorative arts. “This is likely because of the timeless quality of his design,” he said. “Puiforcat is not responding to a singular aesthetic movement in his works; rather, he is trying to answer fundamental questions regarding proportion, balance and design. This allows his work to communicate and harmonize with other aesthetic movements because it does not focus on the surface of the work alone.”

Coombs concluded, “Collectors and buyers of Puiforcat encompass a larger collecting category than strictly ‘silver collectors.’ People interested in modernism and design are also active buyers as well as prominent decorators who are always looking for a highlight work to anchor any room. They will always be able to find that in the works of Jean Puiforcat.”

#  #  #  #

Sterling silver tea sets highlight Jasper52 auction July 22

A Jasper52 online auction of Exquisite Decorative Arts on July 22 will enhance homes and gardens with a diverse array of antique and contemporary objects. Exquisite vases, impressive dinnerware and lovely sculptures are among the unique treasures in this sale.

Savory & Sons, London, nine-piece sterling silver tea set, on a Odiot a Paris footed tray, early 19th century. Estimate: $22,000-$26,000. Jasper52 image

View the auction here.

Learn more about the auction on Auction Central News.

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.