It’s lucky that I enjoy the process of deciphering silver marks, because it’s absolutely central to my job. Silver marks are a treasure trove of information about each piece. The key is to be able to read and interpret them correctly. The process is a mixture of art, science, intuition, experience and luck.
When I’m looking at a new piece of silver (although I do try and refrain from doing this in social situations) the first thing I do is locate the marks. Sometimes this is a task in and of itself, especially if the marks are hidden within the decoration, such as on a piece that is heavily covered in repousse work. The silver marks on this piece were hidden in repousse. Can you find them?
Steps to read silver marks
Once I’ve found the silver marks the real fun begins.
The very first thing I have to do is determine whether a piece is actually made of silver. I have disappointed many people by informing them that the ‘bargain’ piece of silver they bought in an auction is in fact silver plate rather than silver. There are many marks out there that mimic genuine marks – hence the large number of disappointed auction buyers.
The next step is to determine where a piece of silver is from. Often times knowing the answer to step 1 points the way to the answer to step 2. Standards of fineness vary around the world so knowing that information is vital to including or excluding locations in a search. For example, if I see a Lion Passant I know I’m looking at an English piece, Minerva sends me to my French reference texts, etc, etc.
Once I know where a piece was made, then I can begin to research who made it? Hopefully it will have a maker’s mark. If it does, I then turn to my texts and look for a match. If not, as is the frustrating case on so many American pieces, that is as far as the story goes.
What makes this process art rather than science is the sheer number of marks in existence and how the silver marks system has changed over time. For example, in England the hallmarking system has been stable (and well-documented) since the late Middle Ages, so identifying English silver is a relatively simple task. Similarly, modern American silver is clearly marked.
In other parts of the World silver may have been marked by municipality rather than by country and each municipality mark might change every year. Or as is the case with American coin silver, it’s marked only with a makers mark and nothing else, even no standard of fineness. Some countries have different marks for pieces made for export vs. those made for domestic sale. Or the size of the piece may determine which mark is used. The potential variations are myriad.
On a very good day all the marks I examine are clear and simple to read. The reality is quite different and luck plays a huge role here. Are the marks:
- Poorly struck – When a mark isn’t stamped perfectly into the silver in the first place, we call it poorly struck. This can make a mark impossible to read, or distort a mark enough that it sends you in the wrong direction for a while.
- Rubbed, worn or damaged – Over hundreds of years marks can become damaged or rubbed, especially when they are situated in a place that gets lots of wear. Silver marks on a handle or by a cap are particularly prone to being rubbed.
- No information – Did the silversmith register their mark? Has that record survived the passage of time? Did war, revolution, or some other calamity destroy all the records? Has some wonderful scholar spent 5 years in a dusty registry office turning 500 years of parchment into a neat, publishable manuscript, complete with footnotes and photos? Has the manuscript been published? (sigh)
So when people ask me ‘how do you read silver marks?’, I’m always apologetic that the answer isn’t straightforward. The reality is that each piece has to be taken on a case by case basis.
To my mind, that is what makes it so much fun…I never know what’s going to turn up on any give day.