When confronted with any piece of silver there are various factors that contribute to its value. The first and most obvious factor is the age. Generally speaking, the older the piece, the more valuable it will be, as it has survived periods of war (where it could have been melted for currency), changes in fashion (where many pieces were altered, such as the addition of chasing and fussy decoration to suit the Victorian taste), and damage (where pieces had to be well made to survive three centuries).
The second factor is weight. Before the introduction of machines all silverware was made entirely by hand. When raising a flat sheet of silver into say, a cup, by hammering it over a series of iron stakes, the metal had to be of sufficient thickness to withstand these rigors. So the earlier the piece, generally the heavier it will be. As machines were introduced in the 1830’s it became possible to spin metal on a lathe in half the time it took to do it by hand and using half the metal as it was more accurate. Pieces became lighter as the century progressed and by the 1890’s decoration stamped into silver necessitated the use of thin sheets. This new technology greatly increased production and decreased costs.
The third factor is the maker. Concentrating on English silver there have been in the last 300 years many fine silversmiths. Some surpassed their peers and produced silver that stands apart when compared to pieces made by their competitors. Names such as Paul de Laramie, Paul Storr and William Comyns stand out, as their work was sought after by kings and queens. These silversmiths, apart from being technically brilliant also possessed that sixth sense that comes from working with one’s hands. They knew instinctively how to juggle the various manufacturing processes to end up with an item that the recipient knows is special and different.
The fourth factor is the designer. Most pieces made before 1880 were designed by the silversmiths themselves. In other words, a wealthy client would commission a piece for a specific use and it would then be left to the silversmith to create something that would impress the buyer. Towards the end of the 19th century, as machines became a greater aspect of manufacturing, it was one man who perceived the changes that the 20th century would bring. His name was Christopher Dresser and he was the first industrial designer in England. He did not manufacture the items himself – he designed them using his knowledge of the various processes. He understood that with advancing technology, the cost of production would decrease dramatically and pieces would become more affordable to the emerging middle classes. He then conceived pieces that could be manufactured in the shortest time, but with the element of strong design. Following in his footsteps were others such as Rex Silver and Archibald Knox who designed for Liberty in London.
The fifth factor is covered under desirability. Here we would include the following, as they would all have an effect on pricing: Fashion – which is illustrated at the moment by the demand for Georg Jensen silverware, which although made this century frequently outsells equivalent Georgian pieces. Condition – if a piece has been well looked after and is in pristine condition it is likely to appeal to more buyers, hence commanding a better price. Usage – if the piece can be used in our modern lifestyle today, such as candlesticks and cutlery, there will be a constant demand for these items. Collectable – this aspect covers silverware such as snuff boxes, button hooks, caddy spoons and marrow scoops which although seldom used today, are sort after by large bodies of collectors who establish and maintain price levels. Quality – encompasses the techniques available to the silversmith and how he employed them to produce the piece. To be able to determine quality one must handle and examine silver frequently. Comparing pieces allows buyers to determine why one is superior to the other.
When buying a piece of silver, determine the above factors and compare it to similar ones for sale or that have sold recently. This will establish a market related value, where the more selling points an item has the higher the price will be. Hopefully this brief insight will allow buyers to understand how silver is priced and valued by dealers and allow you to recognize a bargain when you see it.