Sterling-silver tea sets can date back hundreds of years. A tea set's value depends on its condition, country of origin, age, manufacturer and style. A tea set is, at minimum, made up of a teapot, a cream jug and a sugar bowl, although some sets have up to nine pieces. Antique sterling-silver tea sets are considered the most valuable; however, certain mass-produced older sets are less desirable and fetch lower prices.
Sterling silver should have a small icon pressed into the metal; this icon is known as a hallmark. A hallmark could be a picture or a series of letters or digits. A tea set will usually have the same mark on each piece (use a magnifying glass to get a closer look if needed). Hallmarks will often signify everything from the place where the item was made to the manufacturer's name. The stamp "925" is used on sterling-silver pieces; stamps that read "830" or "800" indicate a lower grade of silver that's not considered sterling. English and some continental sterling silver isn't stamped with "925"; instead, these types of silver boast other distinguishing hallmarks, such as a lion passant for genuine English silver. Sterling silver is usually worth more than nonsterling silver.
Guides and Websites
Consult a hallmark guidebook or visit the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks and Maker's Marks (see Resources). Hallmarks number in the thousands, so it's important to get an accurate comparison. For example, English sterling silver may have a lion hallmark, but it may also have a letter for the date, a symbol to represent the town of origin, and some additional lettering to show the maker's name.
Look for popular stamped names such as Tiffany, Birks or Gorham for North American silver tea sets. Some English hallmarks for names that command high prices are "PS" for Paul Storr, "AGB" for Gerald Benney, "E&Co" for Elkington and Co., and "JSH" below a crown hallmark for John Samuel Hunt. Named sterling-silver tea sets are generally more desirable, increasing the value of the set.
A tea set's condition affects its value. Search for dents, holes, splits in teapot spouts or signs of obvious repairs. Black, tarnished spots and large areas of solder are also a bad sign. Check that the teapot lid fits onto the base; if it doesn't, it may be a mismatch. Antiques often have a little bit of natural wear through age and use. Antiques will have the highest value, but items in poor condition won't sell as well as more pristine samples. Sets with more pieces often command higher prices.
Auctions and Price Guides
Websites for international and local auction houses may list previous sale prices. Large auction houses include Sotheby's, Christie's and Bonhams. These auction sites display sale totals, including recent values for sterling-silver tea sets. Compare your tea set to those listed in an antiques guide such as Miller's Antiques Handbook and Price Guide. This guide comes out every year and lists approximate values. Keep in mind, however, that trends and values can change rapidly in the antiques business.