A Guide to Antique Silver

There are many approaches to collecting works of art. Some collectors aim for only the top examples in each field. Others concentrate on a single area, refining their collection over many years. For many, works of art are a significant part of the overall interior design of their home, enhancing rooms while giving the pleasures of acquisition and ownership.

Personally, I delight in collecting silver for use in everyday life, such as a set of silver tumblers I commissioned with gilded interiors to allow wine to be drunk from them and a table service of cutlery in the Old English pattern. Such pieces can be a starting point for a collection that can be used and displayed.

Use silver to set the scene — from modern tables to ornate centrepieces.

Silver has traditionally been central to decorating a dinner or banquet table. Today’s collectors tend to use silver to create stylishly-set modern tables decorated with one or two carefully chosen works matched with everyday objects or to emulate the styles of the 18th and 19th centuries with ornate centrepieces, tureens and candlesticks, often laden with fruit and flowers.

At the grandest end of the spectrum are the great royal and aristocratic works, and the prodigious exhibition pieces, such as the silver-gilt and enamel dressing table mirror designed by Paulding Farnham for the Paris Exposition of 1900, sold in New York on 20 January 2011.

In 2013, when we displayed the Maharaja of Patiala’s magnificent and lavish service, commissioned from the Goldsmiths and Silversmiths Company for dinner in honour of the Prince of Wales, the dessert stands and centrepieces were decorated with Indian-inspired ornament and piled with exotic fruit. The effect was breath-taking.

Start with flatware

If you are furnishing a dining table, your starting point should be the knives, forks and spoons. Condition is of paramount importance. Heavily worn 18th-century silver may be too fragile, whereas 19th and early 20th-century services in popular patterns such as Old English, Fiddle and Kings are more practical.

Rarer patterns appeal to some collectors but can prove difficult and expensive to add to if you decide to enlarge the service.

Candlesticks and candelabras

No dinner table is complete without candlesticks. Some — for instance, by the 18th-century makers’ John and William Cafe — can be bought for as little as £1,500 a pair if larger candlesticks or a more architectural model appeal, neoclassical examples of column form are a good choice.

Candlesticks by provincial English silversmiths in Birmingham and Sheffield are less expensive. Candelabra that can be used with or without their branches are a versatile idea — prices for 18th-century pairs start at around £5,000.

Embrace accessories

Augmenting candlesticks with a centrepiece, such as a basket or a tureen, would complete the basic framework of your table setting. To this, you could then add salt cellars, mustard pots and pepperettes.

A grander room might call for pairs of wine coolers, large salvers or soup tureens on the sideboards. Country-house collections are invariably made up of vessels from many eras and styles, so no particular period or pattern need be adhered to.

How to beat tarnish

It’s the one unavoidable question: cleaning. Cleaning silver is easier and much more straightforward than people think. Good polishes, such as Goddard’s silver foam or Hagerty silver cleaner, remove tarnish from forming.

If the silver is not on display, it is best to store it in as air-proof an environment as possible, kept away from dampness in baize bags that will also help to stop dents, dings and scratches. In many ways, silver, like fine porcelain and glass, is best hand-washed.

Consider condition and repairs

The condition of work is always important. Candlesticks that have been dropped may not be perfectly vertical or may rock. Baskets that have been damaged may have solder repairs to the handles. Minor repairs do not cause a problem, but heavily repaired examples are best avoided.

Jeweller’s rouge — a particularly abrasive polish used by over-zealous butlers in the 19th century — may have rubbed away the details of the decoration, either cast or chased, or the hallmarks. This affects the value of the work, as does the removal of a monogram or coat of arms. The erasure could make the silver noticeably thin if the engraving were particularly deep.

As with all works of art, age, condition, and rarity help to determine its value. There is a huge range of forms and prices when valuing Antique silver. Here at Olympia Mayfair Ltd, our specialists can value any item of silver you wish to sell. If you have an item to sell, please contact us.

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