At times researching a piece of silver feels like an exercise in cryptography, albeit on a far lesser scale than Enigma and Bletchley Park! If I can just assign the correct meaning to a single mark, suddenly everything else becomes relatively simple to unlock.
Needle in a haystack
Despite all the vast amounts of information available about antique and vintage silver on the web, researching silver is an endeavor still very heavily reliant on books. Somewhat to my dismay, I have become an obsessive collector of old manufacturer’s catalogs, advertisements, price lists, books, and obscure monographs. Thank goodness for the paper ephemera sellers on Etsy and eBay, I have found huge amounts of invaluable information through them.
Naturally all these bits of paper, bound and unbound, come in different sizes and shapes, making neat storage virtually impossible. Often times my desk is covered in reference materials piled 2 and 3 deep as I try to figure out the who, what, when and where of an object.
Most of the time when a piece lands on my desk I am easily able to tell where it came from and from that point on know what paper trails to run down in order to unlock it’s story. But every-so-often something arrives and the answer to that crucial question is not clear.
I once had a very plain and simple little bowl on which the marks had been poorly struck and were not very clear. It looked like some kind of winged creature..a dragon, a phoenix, a bird…I couldn’t really tell even under the 30x loupe. So I spent weeks looking at reference books of old European city marks trying to puzzle out where this thing had come from. You wouldn’t believe how many marks there are with winged creatures, thousands upon thousands.
One day, looking at this bowl for the umpteenth time, I suddenly had a burst of inspiration. I’d been on the right track with the wings, just on the wrong continent. Sure enough it was a Mexican eagle, the poor strike had distorted the mark just enough to send me down the wrong rabbit hole.
Once I had that key piece of information in place, it acted as my Rosetta stone, and the rest of the identification process became much simpler.
If there is a particular pattern, silversmith, or style of silver you collect keep your eyes open for old catalogs and ads about it.