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Preserving the Past: What is the True Value of Silver?

Value of Silver | Reed & Barton Sterling Silver Bride's Basket

Reed & Barton Sterling Bride’s Basket, late 19th/early 20th century, Lot 345 in the March 31, 2012 European Furniture & Decorative Arts Auction

It was once quite fashionable to display a silver tea and coffee service, a pair of candelabra, or a nice center bowl in your home. Just a few decades ago, fine dining was still a frequent occurrence and the appearance of a fine set of sterling flatware at the dinner table along with a set of Wedgwood china and some Baccarat stemware really set the tone of elegance, and added to the overall experience.

On today’s dinner table, more often than not we use silver plated or stainless steel flatware, and dishes and glasses compliments of Bed, Bath, and Beyond, Crate and Barrel, or Pottery Barn. Personally, I prefer stainless steel for everyday use and silver plate for more formal use. For some, daily dinnerware consists of paper plates and plastic utensils.

Yet many, many people still own sterling silver—whether it came to them through inheritance, as a personal purchase, or as a wedding gift. Many wonder about the value of silver, and what their pieces might be worth.

Today, the antiques market is flooded with people finding that their grown children don’t want or will never use their silver and other fine dinnerware. Dishwashers and microwaves are here to stay. Who has the time any more to wash dishes and crystal by hand?

While it may be challenging today to find a buyer for your grandmother’s fine china dinner service, sterling silver has never been easier to sell. The recent rise in the value of silver as a commodity has led to high melt values and thus high demand for anything made of silver.

I’m not talking about silver pieces by makers at the high end of the market, including Tiffany, Gorham, Dominick and Haff, George Jensen, and Kirk. These high end pieces still command prices much higher than their melt values. However, silver produced by more moderate manufacturers such as Towle, International, Durgin, and Whiting is seeing new interest, mainly due to the rise in spot silver prices.

My fear is that a lot of this silver will see its way to the smelter, with no merit given for its intrinsic historical or artistic value. When recognized by a silver appraiser, this additional sentimental value could attract buyers willing to pay much more than the price quoted by a smelter.

I hate to see fine silver disappear forever without any consideration for its history or quality. If we all rushed out to melt our antique silver for a sum, what would be left for future generations to appreciate?

If you’re interested in finding out more about the value of your fine silver, please send images and a description using our free online auction evaluation form. I’d be happy to take a look.

7 thoughts on “Preserving the Past: What is the True Value of Silver?

  1. Perfect time to read this. We are relocating to your area and will probably send some photos at that time. Do you do on-site appraisals? How are the fees for appraisal set? as a percentage of value? or by an hourly rate. I don’t know that we have anything terrifically historical or valuable, but like you, think that a path straight to the smelter (or GoodWill) is rather sad.)

  2. As a long-time collector of American silver, I enjoyed reading your thoughts on the importance of preserving an important part of our artistic heritage.

    I was quite surprised by the fact that you included Durgin and Whiting in the group of “moderate manufacturers”. Both Durgin and Whiting produced some silver of incredible merit and quality which easily rivals that of your pantheon of the greats. Whiting’s Lily pattern (designed by Charles Osborne) and Durgin’s Iris and New Art patterns are examples of exceptional design and execution. All manufacturers produced both the exceptional and the mediocre…including Tiffany and Gorham.

    I believe it is wise to judge a piece of silver on its own inherent artistic merit, not solely on the manufacturer who created it.

    • I am looking for a buyer for my Tiffany candy dish. Made between 1902 and 1907. In good condition. Needs polishing. 7.5L x3.5W. I am in New York City. Do you or do you know any one intrested in buying.

  3. As another collector, I strongly agree with Mr. Land. Whiting and Durgin did some terrific work, every bit as good as Tiffany and other “star” makers. I also agree that each piece must stand on its own as a piece of fine art, trash, or something in-between. This is true for paintings and it’s true for silver and so much else.

    I think that only the most ignorant people scrap artistic pieces of silver. Those pieces command high—and rising—prices in the right markets and are increasingly being recognized as the art they are. A “silver renaissance” may well be on its way. We’re seeing that already with Jensen.

    Meanwhile, some of the silver that is being scrapped deserves to be scrapped, if you ask me.

  4. Thank you, thank you, thank you … for (more than) suggesting that the beauty and desirability of a piece doesn’t necessarily go hand in hand with the commodities market price, at any given time … nor with the ‘star-status’ name of its maker. Some of my most cherished and lovely pieces come without, or with barely perceptible marks, and I wouldn’t dream of handing them over to a smelter for any price! There is always a bit of history that goes sadly missing behind every old, sometimes battered collectible … that carries within it the spirit and creativity of the hands that crafted it, the hands that once usefully and appreciatively held it, and the hands of those who save them today for those who will appreciate them tomorrow … when greed, and occasionally uninformed need, outweigh beauty’s worth.

  5. Pingback: What are Antiques Worth? A Guide to the Collecting Market in 2013 | Skinner Inc.

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