How to Identify Silver Antiques

By Susan Ward

To identify antique silver, collectors and enthusiasts examine and research their pieces to determine date, style, maker, and country of origin. Ease of identification depends largely on the country where the piece was produced. Britain developed a sophisticated system of required hallmarks for marking silver, and books identifying these marks are available. With silver from all other countries less rigorous in developing and requirement a system of hallmarks, a combination of research and guesswork is required. Silver falls into two general categories called flatware (silverware and other related table accessories) and holloware (silver that is hollow or concave). An additional subdivision of silver considers sterling silver (made from all silver) and silverplate (objects made with a layer of silver fused over a base metal).

Function

Decide the original function of your antique piece. Many antique silver pieces are easily identified: teapots, candlesticks, trays, goblets.

Research pieces you don't recognize. Many antique pieces have no equivalent today. In the 18th and 19th centuries, for example, salt cellars--small, silver bowls lined with a glass insert--sat on every table. Chocolate pots, made in the 18th century, generally had handles at right angles to the spout, with hinged finials to insert a stirring rod. Invented to coincide with the new fashion of drinking tea, tea caddies--square or rectangular boxes with detachable lids--were popular during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Look through antique silver books, peruse antique websites, and visit antique shops to find out how your piece of silver was originally utilized.

Marks

Look carefully for any marks. Silver marks are stamped into the silver on the bottom of a piece. On newer pieces of antique silver, or minimally used pieces, the marks stand out clearly. For older and very worn pieces, look carefully under bright light. Sometimes all you can find is part of a mark, and that must be your identification starting point.

Identify whether your piece is of British origin. If you are looking at a British piece of silver, there will always be four marks indicating that it is made of sterling, along with marks for the city, date, and maker. Books and online resources provide lists of those marks.

Research marks from other countries. With antique silver from America, France, or other countries, resources are available to assist in identification of marks, but the lack of consistency in classification can make identification frustratingly complex.

Shape and Design

Consider the overall shape and design of your antique silver. Silver, an expensive commodity, stylishly followed the trends of its time. Whether you have a teapot, a tankard, a basket, or a bowl, it will have stylistic details related to when it was made. For example, Baroque silver, from the 17th and early 18th centuries, was often massive in size and heavily decorated with elaborate handles and finials, the decorative pinnacle of a piece. Neoclassical silver, on the other hand, was small and light, with most of the decoration kept close to the surface through engraving and chasing, a form of low-relief embellishment.

Look through antique silver books and identify silver pieces similar to yours in shape, size, and decoration. If you were able to date your piece by its mark, you will be able to narrow your search. Keep in mind that American silver designs and decoration were usually much simpler than British and European antiques from the same era.

Continue looking and asking questions and your ability to identify antique silver will improve quickly.

About the Author

Susan Ward, M.A., writes about family, parenting, and children's mental health issues for multiple publications. She has been published in various special interest publications, both in print and online, in the United States, Canada, Australia, and the U.K. since 1989. She's also authored two books and numerous booklets.