How finding a buyer in the saleroom can put a ‘shine’ on pieces of silver

Close up of a Victorian rectangular shaped vinaigrette with engraved detail and 'SW' monogram

Victorian rectangular shaped vinaigrette, sold for £180 - Credit: Keys Auctioneers and Valuers

The price of all precious metals is a very variable feast, but at times of crisis – whether financial, social or medical – the ‘commodity price’ of metals such as gold and silver tends to increase.

And so it is right now: gold is trading at around £1,300 an ounce, and silver at more than £18; both of these prices are historically high (at time of writing – the market is very volatile).

For those with silver items to sell, this news might lead to the temptation to simply cash in on the base metal price. But to do so risks not maximising the value of individual pieces, because for many types of silver items, there is a definite premium to be had by seeking buyers from the collecting community via the saleroom.

Silver is a precious metal that has a finite supply and it is used in all sorts of applications, only some of which involve decorative items such as jewellery and tableware. 

Silver heart-shaped perfume flask from the late 19th century with intricate engraving details

William Comyns silver heart shaped perfume flask, London 1898, sold for £190 - Credit: Keys Auctioneers and Valuers

Its main industrial use was in film photography, but the advent of digital cameras has largely put paid to that demand.

Even so, its many industrial uses include photovoltaic panels, medicine (silver has a powerful antibacterial property), semiconductors, catalytic converters, touch screens and dentistry, to name but a few applications. So it’s no surprise that as a commodity, it remains valuable.

Those prices are for solid silver, which is 99.9% silver (as opposed to sterling silver, which is 92.5% silver, with the rest made up mostly of copper). Both solid and sterling silver have hallmarks, from which you can tell the purity of the metal, where it was tested, and when.

Even for hallmarked items, it is easy to be fooled about its value simply by picking it up. Some items such as candlesticks tend to be made hollow and then filled with a material such as sand to give them stability, giving the impression of containing much more silver than they actually do.

Close up of silver hallmark details with lion passant park, facing left, and a stamped date

Details of an English silver hallmark. On the left are the first two letters of the silver smiths surname; different fonts, sizes and outlines differentiate the marks of silversmiths with the same initials. The next mark along is the mark of origin - the assay office where the silver item is verified; the anchor mark in the image is the assay mark for Birmingham. The Lion passant mark (facing left) is the standard mark for silver. Finally, the date letter, with different font and sizes and inside punches of various shapes. In the image the letter A is for the date 1925 - Credit: Keys Auctioneers and Valuers

Silver plate is a base metal (usually nickel or copper) which has been plated with a thin layer of silver. There are two main methods you will find for this: the early 20th century Electro-Plated Britannic Metal Silver (EPBMS) and the more modern Electro-Plate Nickel Silver (EPNS). Confusingly, these two can have hallmarks, so close inspection is required.

Fortunately, what an item might fetch in the saleroom is often much more than its basic-metal value. There are two main factors affecting the desirability of silver items: the decorative aspect; and who made the piece.

Collectable items such as silver snuff boxes and vinaigrettes (small decorative boxes that were used as more convenient containers for perfume and scents when travelling) continue to be much sought-after, as do perfume bottle with silver stoppers.

Silver jewellery also continues to be popular, particularly enamelled pieces from the Arts & Crafts era (late 19th century and early 20th century). A good name to look out for is the designer Archibald Knox, who worked for Liberty from 1989 to 1906.

Close up of sterling silver dove bracelet with intricate linked details

Georg Jensen sterling silver dove bracelet, circa 1945 - Credit: Keys Auctioneers and Valuers

Norwegian silver jewellery, such as that made by the contemporary Norwegian designer David Andersson, is also making good money, as is work by the Danish silversmith Georg Jensen, whose silverware and collectable  jewellery is inspired by nature and symbols of the natural world such as fruits and blossoms, and organic shapes.

There are a number of silversmiths whose work will always command a price premium, including the Sheffield-born Arts & Crafts maker Omar Ramsden, the Regency English silversmith Paul Storr, and the Birmingham-based 19th century craftsman Mathew Boulton.

Even at times of high base-metal prices, there is still an extra intrinsic value in decorative silver, and particularly rare items made by big-name designers and silversmiths.

So before consigning your silver to a commodity merchant to be melted down, it is definitely worth checking to see if you can achieve better value in the saleroom.

Full details of all of Keys Auctioneers and Valuers forthcoming sales can be found at www.keysauctions.co.uk.

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