Have you ever bought something that was advertised as one thing and then turns out to be another?
A friend of mine – who shall remain nameless – had this happen to her.She bought a fabulous meat serving fork. It has lovely brightwork and a wonderful substantial handle. It is a great size too, about 9 1/2 inches long.
“It’s English silver! I got a great deal!!”
OK, I’d love to see it. I’m always interested in looking at silver; it’s why I started Silver Magpies. I get to do something I love all day long.
To cut a long story short, I had an opportunity to see this fork, and indeed it is fabulous. Great size and wonderful shape, sadly though I had the unhappy task of informing her it was not sterling silver.
“What? But look at all the hallmarks on the back.”
It does have a lot of marks and they do look impressive.
Of critical importance though, is that they are not sterling hallmarks. It is a silver-plate fork from AT & Co. in the UK.
How did I know?
Well, a number of things. Call it a professional reflex, but the first thing I do when I get my hands on a piece is flip it over to look at the marks (I try my best NOT to do this in social situations). On an English piece, the crucial mark is the lion passant. Without him it’s not sterling, except on very new pieces. On an American piece, I would have looked for 925 or Sterling to be stamped on it.
The Lion Passant – remember him!
This is the Lion Passant; if this mark is not present on English sterling antiques, that is because it is probably not sterling.
Of course, there are exceptions to this rule but generally they are the type of thing owned by the Queen or the British Museum. Naturally, the rules for Irish and Scottish silver are different. Complicated and confusing; yes it is. That is why I have a significant number of reference books.
“Hallmarks” are not always what they seem.
Every country has its own system which often changed over time. If you are going to buy sterling, arm yourself with some information. Buy a book about the marking system, or borrow one from the library.
There are great sites on the web; two of my favorites are:
The amount of information contained on them is staggering; as is the generosity of the site developers in providing access to that information.
But I digress, so back to the story. The second thing that happened, was the piece stayed cool in my hand for a relatively long time. Remember, sterling is an alloy of silver and copper; thus it conducts heat very quickly. Find two items of comparable size and shape – teaspoons are ideal – one should be sterling the other silver-plate. Put them down for a minute or two, then simultaneously pick them up and press the back of the bowl to your face. Can you feel how quickly the sterling one heats to your body temperature? It is a clear giveaway.
But what about my friend, who had paid for sterling but received silver-plate? Well, we put together some information and contacted the seller – politely informing them of their mistake. The result was she received a refund which brought the price to an appropriate level for silver-plate. Now she has a fabulous serving piece and a great story.