By Robin Pridham
Sterling silver, silver, hall marked silver, 800 silver, coin silver and the list goes on. All of this can get somewhat confusing if you are not accustomed to the world of silver and its long and complex history. For the average person, they know they have grandma’s silver tea service on the buffet or perhaps a canteen of silver cutlery that they have never used because it doesn’t go into the dishwasher safely. Where it was made, the age and quality are often a mystery to the owner. The market could be looking for exactly the pattern they have which means the best time to sell is now to achieve the highest possible return, or it could be a more generic service, but still somewhat desirable. This is usually a determination that must be made by an expert for the simple fact that all the variables that go into desirability and value are complex. As a matter of fact, it has been since the 12th Century that the craft of the silversmith has been regulated by Acts of Parliament in England. Scotland and Ireland followed suit shortly thereafter. This old and complex system is in use to this very day, although somewhat simplified. It is called the Hallmarked Silver System and refers specifically to silver from the United Kingdom. Through a series of marks stamped into the silver, one can determine the town where the assay office is located, the year the item was produced, the purity of the silver, the maker of the piece and since 1784, assurance that duty was paid through a duty mark (yes, taxes!) This marking system has had various iterations throughout its long history, with slight variations from country to country. For example, the standard mark (this is the mark that denotes 925 parts silver / 1000 parts) for England is a lion passant whereas in Dublin it is a crowned harp and in Scotland it is a thistle. There are countless variations in date letters, makers marks and city marks. All this could be very interesting or very overwhelming depending on your point of view and interest level. Although Great Britain unquestionably has the most complex and comprehensive marking system, most European countries have a system of their own. Germany, as an example, uses 800 fine silver instead of the more common 925. Silver with 800 parts per 1000 produces a harder, more utilitarian grade of silver, well suited for cutlery and everyday use items. All this to say that almost all countries in Europe have some sort of marking system which becomes very useful when determining value and desirability of an item on the secondary market. Over on this side of the pond, in the United States, it wasn’t until about 1868 that a simple marking system was established. Works were stamped “sterling” and the number “925” or “925 / 1000”.
The United States has no date marking system so many of the more important companies such as Tiffany & Co. and Gorham devised their own system, which becomes very useful when dealing with these often high-value items. Here in Canada, of the Canadian silversmiths working in the 18th and 19th Century, most were working in Montréal or Québec City. There were also a few small manufacturers in Toronto and the Maritimes. The largest and most influential of all these were Henry Birks and Sons, established in Montréal in 1879. Based out of a very influential city at the time, they eventually became a Canadian powerhouse, consuming most of the smaller manufacturers around the country, particularly in Toronto. A large portion of Birks’ production was done so for mass consumption. The advent of machine technology allowed to produce large quantities of everything from tea sets to cutlery. Birks also engaged in commission work, producing some magnificent one-off handmade masterpieces. In the early 20th Century and contrary to Birks, emerged the most popular and sought after of Canadian Silversmiths, Carl Poul Petersen. Born in Denmark and apprenticing under the famous Danish silversmith Georg Jensen, Petersen moved to Canada in 1929. Ironically, he worked for Birks off and on while doing commission work on his own from his temporary studio during the 1930’s. In 1944, Petersen opened his own permanent studio under the name C. P. Petersen and Sons. Most of his work was by hand and in the Danish taste that he acquired during his time with Georg Jensen. He produced fantastic flatware patterns, an extensive range of hollow ware, jewelry and Judaica items. He remains, by far, the most sought after of all Canadian silversmiths. It should be noted that he was commissioned to reproduce the Stanley Cup in 1962 as well as numerous other trophies for the NHL. Petersen marked all his silver with his trademark “PP” underlined three times, the word “Sterling” and “Handmade”.
Silver, being a precious metal, has a base value consistent with the current spot value of silver on any given day. This is usually a figure that is represented in dollars per gram. This is the baseline for any piece of silver. From this point, value can go up based on a myriad of factors including age, maker, size, quality and rarity. Due to the large influx of silver (and antiques in general) onto the market in the past few years, for a piece of silver to perform beyond its base price, it really needs to have a few things going for it. The maker is the most obvious. A good Petersen piece will dramatically outperform a good Birks piece of silver all day long. The same is true for rare makers such as François Sasseville (1797-1864) of Québec City. Well known American makers such as Unger brothers or Gorham will always do better than a generic conglomerate such as International Silver. The size or how impressive the piece is leading to its rarity is a major contributing factor. Shrewd buyers want pieces that their neighbors don’t have and are willing to pay for them. Age is another factor. Silver from the early Georgian Period will generally command a higher price than a 20th Century piece. When this factor is combined with a well-known maker such as England’s Hester Bates, you have a winning combination!
The world of silver is a lot of fun and can be quite profitable if you are the lucky owner of a well-made piece. The interesting thing is that almost everyone has one piece or another lurking in the back of the buffet or sideboard or it may have been sitting right in front of you all these years. It is very important to entrust a reputable auction house to examine your items if you are considering liquidating or downsizing your assets. If you are on the purchasing end of a wonderful new piece of silver, buy the best you can based on the criteria I described above. Silver is a beautiful natural material and with the right piece can go along way to enriching your life in more ways than one!
Robin Pridham, owner of Pridham’s Auction House in Vankleek Hill, Ontario, is a graduate of Reppert’s Auction Business School (Indiana, USA), and a member of the National Auctioneers Association, the Auctioneers Association of Ontario and has 30 years experience buying and selling antiques and art. He is also a guest expert on the television show “Baggage Battles.”