A Beginner’s Guide to Collecting Silver Antiques

Over 5000 years have passed since people began mining silver in the 3rd Millennium BC. Since then, generations have created thousands of different items from silver, including but not limited to:

  • Dining and serving pieces (tea sets, platters, bowls, salt cellars)
  • Flatware (spoons, forks, knives)
  • Decorative objects (candlesticks, vases)
  • Personal care items (mirrors, hair brushes, dresser sets)
  • Clothing elements and accessories (buttons, belt buckles, chatelaines, purse frames)
  • Useful everyday items (pens, magnifying glasses, cigarette cases, sewing tools, needles)
  • Coins and commemorative medals
  • Jewelry

It’s best to know as much as possible about valuable antique silver before starting a collection. Read on to learn the basics of collecting antique silver.

1. Choose a Focus for Your Antique Silver Collection

Collecting antique silver can be overwhelming, especially if you are a beginner. Choosing a focal point is the best way to remain organized as you build your collection. Consider some of these ideas:

  • Select a specific type of item to start with, such as bowls or platters
  • Collect items from an era, such as pieces with Art Deco or Art Nouveau designs
  • Limit your collection to a specific antique silver manufacturer, such as Whiting, Unger Brothers, R. Wallace & Sons, and other famous names
  • Choose a specific motif, such as geometric designs, flowers, or animals
  • Consider pieces you will use regularly, such as spoons, forks, and dishes


2. Understand the Difference Between Sterling Silver and Silverplate

Before you purchase anything for your collection, it’s important to understand the different types of silver. Antique silver is real, solid, or pure silver. However, such items are rare because silver is too soft to resist regular use and exposure to elements through the years. Most of what you will come across in the market is either silverplate or sterling silver.

  • Silver-plated items have a thin layer of silver covering a base metal, usually nickel. In most cases, they have the engraving “electroplate” or “silverplate,” or the initials “EPNS” for electro-plated nickel silver.
  • Sterling silver contains 92.5 percent genuine silver and 7.5 percent other metals, making it durable enough to retain its shape for centuries with proper care. Most sterling silver pieces from the 19th and 20th centuries feature the markings “sterling” or “925.”

The majority of unmarked silver items are silverplate, but there is always a chance for a piece to be sterling. An easy way to tell the difference is to place the item in hot water. If it becomes very hot and retains the temperature, it is likely a sterling silver piece. If it cools down quickly or does not become as hot as the water, it is probably plated, as silver is a better conductor of heat than most base metals underneath silverplate.


3. Know How to Date Antique Silver

Determining how old a silver piece is can be challenging, but there are many ways to get it done. In most cases, older silver items are purer and, therefore, more valuable, so it’s crucial to unearth their age and origin. Doing so is considerably easy for hallmarked silver pieces, since most manufacturers change their marks every couple of years. If you come across a silver item with a mark, check the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks, and Makers’ Marks to compare what you found with the known marks for that manufacturer to specify the date range.

For silver pieces with no hallmarks, examine the design. It pays to have some knowledge about era-specific motifs and styles. For instance:

  • Aesthetic movement: Many pieces from the 1860s through the 1890s featured elements of the Aesthetic movement, including nature motifs, Asian-inspired images, clean and simple lines, and hand engraving.
  • Art Nouveau movement: Popular among collectors, silver pieces made during the Art Nouveau movement featured meticulously detailed floras and faunas, women with long beautiful hair, and enrapturing flowing lines. Artisans created these pieces between 1890 and 1910.
  • Art Deco movement: Art Deco silver designs, which were popular sometime between 1915 through 1935, focused on geometric shapes, simple lines, and repeated design elements.

If you are struggling to pinpoint the age of a piece, you can visit us in Scottsdale or Chandler for a professional silver appraisal. Biltmore Loan and Jewelry specializes in identifying and assessing high-end, luxury, or collectible items from different eras and countries, allowing us to provide accurate appraisals. Contact us for more information.


4. Examine the Condition

Before you consider adding a piece of antique silver to your collection, make sure to examine its condition. Heavy corrosion, worn silver plating, dings, deep scratches that reveal the base metal, broken portions, and other signs of damage can reduce the value of an item. In general, these damaged pieces are not the best items to include in your collection, especially if you are new to collecting silver antiques. The exception, however, is if the damaged item is rare, old, or made from solid silver, which minimizes the drastic effect on desirability.

Asking the seller if you can hold and inspect the item closely is the best way to ensure that you are bringing home a quality piece of antique silver for your collection. This way, you can check the item’s texture and note any rough spots that might indicate damage or poor repairs. You can also try blowing on the item, which will make dents and scratches more apparent.


5. Learn How to Spot the Most Valuable Antique Silver

Certain pieces of antique silver are more valuable than others, and being able to discern them in stores or online can help you snatch a good deal. Sometimes, these treasures are hidden among ordinary pieces, so knowing how to identify valuable silver antiques is key. The next time you go treasure hunting for silver collectibles, look for the following:

  • Renowned manufacturers: Sterling silver flatware manufacturers were aplenty during the 1900s, but only a select few are valuable to collectors. For instance, Tiffany is always worth collecting. Read our Tiffany Tea Set Collecting Guide for more information.
  • Figural motifs: People, animals, and botanicals are not only pleasing to the eyes, but they are among the most valuable antique silver motifs. These are rare and typically difficult to find.  The Unger Brothers specialized in such pieces.
  • Individual patterns: Some of the most valuable antique silver flatware patterns are those that feature unique details or designs on each piece. For example, “Berry” by Whiting has different sets of berries on each piece of flatware.

Collecting antique silver is not only entertaining, but it is also an opportunity to build a collection that retains or grows in both monetary and personal value. If you are diligent in choosing and maintaining your silver pieces, you will have a museum-worthy silver collection to enjoy for decades.


Where to Sell Silver Antiques

With its captivating sheen and spectacular craftsmanship, antique silver tea sets, flatware, and decorative items remain highly sought-after among private collectors and museum curators. If you own silver pieces that you are ready to trade in for cash, choose Biltmore Loan and Jewelry as your antique silver buyer in Phoenix, Arizona. Complete our online appraisal form to get started.