HOME hint number one: next time you clean the family silver, stick a small strip of Sellotape over the hallmarks. Why? Quite simply to avoid them being rubbed away by over zealous polishing. Fact is, many people clean silver too often. It’s a soft metal and untold damage can result.
Polish away the crispness of engraving or chasing on a salver or rosebowl or whatever, and its resale value is seriously affected. You might even rub a hole in an embossed area such as the back of a hand mirror or hairbrush.
Polish away at the hallmarks – every legal piece of English silver has them – to the point that they are unreadable and you’ll live to regret it.
The value of all but early and rare pieces of silver could be reduced to what a buyer of scrap silver would give you for a chunk of the metal at so much per ounce. The price is presently around a measly £3.50.
So what’s so special about hallmarks? Everything.
They are what you might call one of the earliest forms of quality control, because a piece that carries them will have passed the strictest tests to ensure that the silver content is up to scratch.
Moreover, they are a boon to the collector who knows how to crack the code. Understand them and overnight you become an “expert” at deducing where and when a silver object was made.
British silver has been struck with hallmarks applied at the Goldsmiths’ Hall since 1478.
Most British silver objects have four small symbols punched into them that reveal an important amount of information.
Most important mark to identify is what collectors refer to as the lion mark – more correctly termed the standard mark.
This shows a lion as though the animal was walking to the left with one paw raised.
In heraldic terms, it is described as “lion passant”. Quite simply, if a piece bears this mark, then, yes, the metal has been tested and found to be of sterling quality – that is 92.5% pure silver.
Next, look for the assay office mark – the symbol showing where a particular piece was tested and marked as having passed this stiff “quality control”.
Hallmarking has been around since about 1300, and in those early days smiths’ guilds were established in many parts of the country, each with a distinctive mark.
In time, eight major assay offices emerged: in London, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Chester, Sheffield, Birmingham, Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Dublin.
Today, only four remain. They are: London, represented by a leopard’s head shown full face; Birmingham, anchor; Sheffield, today the York rose, but prior to 1975 it was a crown; and Edinburgh, a three-towered castle.
Chester‘s office, represented by three wheat sheaves on a shield, was closed in 1962.
Next comes the date letter, by which it is possible, with a good magnifying glass and a book of hallmarks*, to determine the date to the nearest year that a piece passed through an assay office.
Letters of the alphabet (but not all) are used in chronological order, changing annually, to represent a year. For example, in the case of the Chester Assay Office, A represents 1701, B 1702 and so on.
By 1726 it was back to A, as it was again in 1751.
The secret of how to break the code lies in the design of the letter and the shape of the shield in which the letter appears.
In other words, Chester 1701 was a capital A in a triangular shield, whereas in 1751, it was a small a in a square shield.
A degree of care is needed to differentiate between the styles of shields and lettering, particularly on small pieces.
But by referring to the handbook, it is possible to date a piece with little room for error. Simply match the date/letter and assay office mark to those in the book.
It should be noted that in 1975, the Hallmarking Act, passed two years earlier, came into effect. It simplified the symbols and made them easier to understand.
Main change, and the one which will be an aid to antique silver collectors of the future, was that the date letter became common to all four assay offices.
Thus 1975 was the letter A, 1976, B and back to A by the year 2000.
Last of the four marks is that identifying the maker. Generally speaking, these are initials and are further guarantee of fineness of silver and quality of workmanship.
Smiths can be identified by consulting reference books to be found in local libraries.
Sounds easy, doesn’t it? And it is – with a bit of practice. But the problems start with the pseudo hallmarks that are found on electroplated silver.
While not necessarily meant to deliberately deceive, they can confuse, leading the uninformed collector to believe he owns something precious which is actually base metal.
Fact is, people have been confusing electroplated ware with real silver ever since the former was invented in the mid 19th century.
In fact, telling the two apart is simple: if the marks include the lion passant, then it’s silver. If the lion is lacking, or if there are marks such as “A1 Plate” or impressed single initials each in their own hallmark-style shields, it’s plated.
Man to blame for the confusion is John Wright, a surgeon, who spent several years experimenting following Michael Faraday’s explanation of the laws of electrolysis in 1833.
Wright realised that by a process involving electricity, it was possible to remove a thin layer of silver from a pure block and deposit it over another metal object.
Astute Mr Wright sold the invention to Birmingham manufacturers George and Henry Elkington, not just for a lump sum, but also for the royalties on all silver deposited by his method and all licences granted to other manufacturers under the patent.
The Elkingtons, in turn, killed off any competition by buying the patents for other commercially useful electroplating methods taken out by other companies.
By the time of the Great Exhibition of 1851, electroplating was the recognised method of producing any item that had previously been produced in silver at a fraction of the cost.
Middle class families keen to display their new-found wealth, but unable to afford silver, were filling their homes with the ware.
Similarly, the advent of steam power and other mechanical advances in factories and the appearance of new alloys like Britannia metal (tin, antimony and copper) and so-called nickel silver (really nickel brass) added to the success of mass-production.
The result is a massive stockpile for today’s collectors at highly affordable prices. Just don’t pay the silver premium for it!
Picture shows: a large and imposing pair of early Victorian rococo revival silver sauceboats by John Hunt, worth £8,000-12,000. Look carefully and the hallmarks can be seen just below the lip of the sauceboat on the left. They are for Mortimer & Hunt, London 1839. The other sauceboat will have an identical set in the same spot.
Graphic shows a typical set of hallmarks. From left to right: leopard’s head, town mark for London; date mark for 1801-2; sponsor’s mark of Paul Storr; lion passant sterling silver mark.