Buying vintage silver and sterling? A few things to consider…

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coin silver spoons

They are lovely, but do you really love them?

“What should I look for when I’m buying vintage silver and sterling?”, is a question that has come up on more than one occasion.

Here is a personal list of qualities I look for when I’m contemplating a piece for my personal treasure trove.

Do you love it?

As for as I’m concerned, this is the most important factor if you are really serious about buying it. Does it really speak to you? Don’t get it because it’s “safe” and will fit in. There are plenty of styles and patterns to choose from that will work and play nicely with others.

If it’s elaborate and swirled with roses that appeals then go for it.

Old English by Towle. Roses everywhere, on the handle and decorating the bowl. Does this speak to you?

Perhaps not roses, but scrollwork is your thing?

This is the Louis XV pattern by Whiting Mfg. Co. It is absolutely not my normal style, but I fell in love with this pattern so deeply that I collect it.

Or do you prefer plain and simple, classic and timeless? Georgian era silver in the fiddle pattern, or a modern interpretation may be for you.

The spoon is fiddle and the fork is straight fiddle with wings.

Many modern sets can be found that are very simple. George Jensen’s Acadia, Old Newbury Crafter’s Fiddleback, Reed & Barton’s Pointed Antique are just a few examples.

Whether you are looking for a single piece or a complete set, make sure you adore it. Don’t settle for something that is almost right. Wait until you find the one. If you are afraid you might fall out of love with something distinctive as your tastes change, I always say that it’s not like a life sentence. You can always sell or trade it for a different set.

Will you use it often?

In my opinion there is no point in purchasing something you are unlikely to use. Unused items end up as clutter, using valuable space that could serve some other purpose.  Financially does it make sense to invest a significant sum of money for something that will not see the light of day?  That money could go to better use, or (here’s a radical thought) savings for a rainy day.

If you love it, and are really going to use it often, then go for it.

How do you assess quality?

This is actually easier than you might think. Make sure the piece is finished as nicely on the back as the front.  The photo of the Louis XVI piece above is actually of the back.  On this particular pattern the scrollwork wraps around the sides of the handle and looks the same from the front and back.

Other pieces, particularly in what is called the aesthetic style the pattern should carry through to the reverse.  Aesthetic pieces are literal interpretations of natural themes, an almost photographic realism.

This sugar shell has taken the name quite literally. See the conch shell acting as the terminal?

This is a very nice piece, finished with equal attention to detail on all sides.

Here is the same piece from the reverse side. It is just as detailed on this side as the other. The conch shell is three dimensional.

Not all patterns carry through to the reverse, which does not necessarily mean it is of a lower quality. Just make sure it is finished well. Smooth, with no rough edges, or awkward spots is what you are looking for.

This is what you want to avoid.

I picked up this sugar shell to illustrate this point.

This is a sugar shell with a rose motif on the bowl of the spoon. Even from the front you can see the quality is mediocre. The bowl has little bubbles that are obviously not part of the pattern. These are likely bubbles left from casting the spoon.

The back is a disaster! From the back the roses are indistinct and muddied. The handle is equally uninspiring with no detail what-so-ever. It looks unfinished.

It’s obvious when a piece is of poor quality. Just make sure to examine it thoroughly on all side and from all angles. If the piece has seams, make sure those are smooth and finished looking. Again, don’t settle for a piece that is not made well.

All of that said however, the signs of use and wear a piece acquires over it’s life are not indicative of quality. Surface scratches, bumps, and dings can and do happen to vintage and antique pieces. They are not going to look out of the box new, they are by definition pieces that have seen use. My personal rule of thumb is does the bump, ding, or blemish affect either the functionality of the piece or interfere with it’s beauty. If not, then I generally don’t worry about marks and dings.

Hollowware pieces are particularly susceptible to dings. I have yet to run across a whiskey flask that does not show some sign of use. In fact I’m often amazed that any of them survive for any length of time at all! By the time you’ve drunk that pint (or even more) of whiskey in your pocket, the thought that you might miss your pocket and send the flask crashing to the floor seems distinctly probable.

Bear this thought in mind as you are checking over the pieces you are interested in.

Consider the availability of pieces?

If you have found some pieces that fit all of your criteria and intend to collect the entire set, keep in mind that some pieces may be more difficult to locate than others. In old patterns, knives can be particularly difficult to locate. When the blade separates from the handle, as often happens when old glue loses strength, often the piece just got tossed, instead of repaired.

If it is very important that you have a complete set, you may want to wait until you find a complete set of something you love.

I have a client who looked for 40 years (I am not making this up) for the knives to complete her set. She was looking for a really rare set, but nonetheless it was only sheer luck that I found them for her. While this is an extreme example it is something to factor in.

Another option is to compose a set from complementary patterns. This is a bargain way to put together something unique, fantastic, and utterly you. Another client of mine is in the final stages of doing this. She has mixed Georgian spoons, deco knives, and mother of pearl handle pieces together to create a stunning tableau. And she’s done it for less than some of the higher end stainless sets cost.

Most of all, enjoy!

No matter what you decide, enjoy it, use it, and make memories with it!

I hope you have found this helpful. As always, post a comment or ask a question below. I love to hear from you.

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2 thoughts on “Buying vintage silver and sterling? A few things to consider…

  1. VAClunyNo Gravatar

    Great post! Very very interesting. Especially the example of the “bad” spoon vs. the “good” spoon. Really see what you mean. I adore the fork/spoon with the roses, but I also adore the simple fiddle. So I guess I”m just all over the place. I agree that it can all go together. Beautiful sterling, I think, can always make a beautiful mix that always works. And it’s really a privilege to be able to be a continuing steward for these beautiful, old things.

    1. SilverMagpiesNo Gravatar Post author

      Hi VACluny

      I’m glad you could see the difference in the spoons. It’s really difficult to take a decent photo and I’m never sure if what I see is what you see.

      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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