Falling foul of the law

It was so easy to go bankrupt if clients took years to pay their bills, so enticing to dodge duty and fudge the marks on a recently-made piece, so tempting to risk transportation by stealing a teaspoon if you were hungry. And, once an antiquarian interest developed in old silver, it was a simple matter to work late and make a few fakes to sell to the unwary. The bad news for the culprits is that hallmarking regulations are upheld by statute, and the melt value of the raw material made burglary and pickpocketing a high-risk strategy. The good news for present-day researchers is that those who were caught are recorded in court proceedings, newspapers and the archives of livery companies. Many of the finest eighteenth-century silversmiths went bankrupt: some continued working and prospered again, others never quite recovered. And why is the bowl chosen to illustrate this page? When examining any piece of silver you should always cross-question yourself about it and hope [Read More]

Falling foul of the law2022-08-22T14:54:07+01:00

The whole picture

Don’t look at silver in isolation. It is part of a panoply of three-dimensional objects, ’flat’ art and architecture that form our inheritance. Paintings, tapestries and drawings are crucial to our understanding of silver. They depict objects that have not survived, show us how silver was used (particularly on the dining table), enable us to identify designers, and portray the craftsmen, clients and room settings that bring our subject to life. The painting shown here depicts a collection of treasures assembled by the Paston family of Oxnead Hall, in Norfolk. It gives an insight into a period when collecting and intellectual enquiry embraced all that was offered through voyages to the East – a fascination with the natural world and precious objects that resulted in Schatzkammer in houses throughout Europe. Without the series of paintings and tapestries made in France at the end of the seventeenth century, we would have no idea what Louis XIV’s silver looked like, for it was lost in a [Read More]

The whole picture2022-08-22T14:49:07+01:00

A precious metal

For hundreds of years currency and objects made of silver were, by law, of the same alloy. Wrought plate could be converted into currency, and vice versa. Before banking was formalised many goldsmiths acted as bankers and their dual role continued into the eighteenth century. Ownership of objects in silver and gold was both an investment and a way of showing off wealth and status. Most European countries developed a system of assaying and marking silver as a form of consumer protection: in England hallmarking was introduced in 1300, in France some 30 years earlier. Each country required different standards and developed its own system of marks. In England Sterling standard is 925/1000 and Britannia standard 950/1000, however some silversmiths today work in 999/1000 silver. Several countries within the EU now use a common regulatory system that also allows other standards, eg 800 or 835/1000. Gold and platinum are assayed and marked too. Marks tell you where and when an object was assayed, the [Read More]

A precious metal2022-08-22T14:47:28+01:00

How the trade worked

Understanding how the trade worked is like piecing together a vast jigsaw, each piece of the puzzle representing a skill that was part of a grid as sophisticated as anything we know today, each small network linked at some point to several others. Increasingly we are investigating the suppliers of bullion, the specialist workshops who made ’parts’ for incorporation into coffee pots, tankards etc, the designers, the engravers, the retail shopkeepers and their suppliers, those who transported finished goods to customers, the records of import and export of silver, the struggle to avoid bankruptcy – and, of course, the network of family and business relationships through which the trade operated. A thread that runs through these interlinked trades is the guild system, whereby apprentices were trained, gained their freedom and, if they had sufficient funds, could set up their own business. But it was possible to operate outside guilds, particularly for those who were forced to flee their own country because of religious or [Read More]

How the trade worked2022-08-22T14:27:17+01:00


Anyone who watched the coffin of H.M. Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother processed through London, will understand the mesmeric effect of a jewelled crown. Regalia still has its place. Gold and silver symbolise power and authority as well as wealth. They have been acknowledged as ’precious’ metals for thousands of years and as such have been made into objects that are at the heart of government. Many officers of state and of local government have a staff of office, a chain or a badge to show their rank. Gold and silver lace is used on uniforms for civilians and the armed forces, and medals of gold and silver are worn with pride. Silver seals of office are both symbolic and practical: stamping authority on the vellum and paper documents through which countries are administered. In the United Kingdom maces lie centre stage while parliaments are in session; for centuries members of the House of Lords have worn coronets at Coronations and at the State [Read More]



Think of Wimbledon, the World Cup, and horse racing past and present, think of local swimming galas and gymnastics. What do you get if you win? A trophy usually made of silver or, at the smaller events, electroplate. The earliest horse racing prizes for major races were sometimes of gold and nearly always in the height of fashion. Nowadays, sadly, glass and other materials seem to have entered the arena and many ’silver’ trophies are poorly designed and actually made of nickel. But the subject has endless fascination for it leads you into so very many activities – archery, curling, flower shows and dog shows – the list is endless. Trophies can also, of course, mean trophies of war and of education. A school medal for handwriting and the Patriotic Fund vases of the early nineteenth century may seem to have little in common, but both were awarded for personal endeavour, although in utterly different circumstances. One way of honouring great achievement is to [Read More]



Collecting objects relating to wine is as much a passion for some people as drinking it is for others. The subject embraces a huge range of objects and there are societies for collectors of wine labels and corkscrews, which of course are also made in materials other than silver. Beakers, goblets, and wine cups come in a range of forms depending on the period they were made; so too do tankards and mugs, for drinking beer. They have survived in substantial quantities in Europe and, to a lesser extent, in America despite heavy use. From the seventeenth century there are posset or caudle cups. There are fewer jugs and flagons for pouring drink, but wine coasters (for holding bottles and decanters) are also still bought for use, made in both silver and Sheffield Plate. As well as labels and corkscrews, smaller items in this field include: wine tasters, bottle stoppers, and wine funnels and syphons. Grandest of all, however, are wine coolers and cisterns, [Read More]



Silver looks its best by candlelight. Perhaps for this reason, and because candles are still widely used even after the introduction of oil, gas and electricity, there are still relatively large quantities of silver candlesticks surviving from the mid-seventeenth century onwards. Candlesticks have to withstand heavy usage and so metals, including brass and pewter, have proved the most practical material and they also reflect the light, enhancing its glow. Different forms of candle holder were developed in accordance with how and where they were to be used: tapersticks for desks, chambersticks for the bedroom, wall sconces, candelabra and (in only the wealthiest households) chandeliers. As the time for dining moved from mid-day into the hours of darkness, the height of candlesticks increased and branches were added to give more light. Ancillary utensils were also made in silver. Snuffers, used to trim frequently the wick of tallow candles, were made with stands or trays; they usually have a useful spike to lever out candle stubs. [Read More]



Smallwork The term smallwork covers a wide range of items made for personal use, as souvenirs and gifts, as novelties. It includes bits and pieces for the desk or dressing table, smoking, card games, toys for children and adults, and things to have about your person, such as buttons, buckles, seals, lorgnettes, an etui, or a walking stick. In addition, smallwork can include equipment for various sporting pursuits (silver spurs for example), also wine accessories, medical instruments and toiletries, sewing equipment, medals and small scientific instruments such as pocket sundials. However if you are looking for these things at auction, they are now very often to be found in specialist collector sales rather than with silver. There is logic in this, although silver sales are poorer and duller for it. Another important item that attracts a large following amongst collectors, is spoons. They are attractive to collectors and connoisseurs because they are amongst the earliest pieces to survive and their study therefore [Read More]


Where to buy silver

A shop front such as the one shown here is rarely, if ever, seen today. The buying public can no longer expect to find a well-stocked retail silversmith in every provincial town, nor even in a capital city, as was the case 50 years ago. But there are many ways of buying silver of all periods. The Silver Society does not give advice on the buying or selling of silver, nor can it recommend any dealer or auctioneer or comment on values. Some dealers exhibit only at fairs but others continue to run a retail shop. Many belong to trade organisations such as the BADA or LAPADA and are listed on their websites. Numerous fairs are held each year; the major venues are: Tefaf Maastricht, Netherlands, held in March Winter Antiques Show, Seventh Regiment Armory, New York, January BADA fair, London, March Masterpiece, London, June to July Art Antiques London, June, London Olympia, London The major international auction houses advertise widely, but there are [Read More]

Where to buy silver2022-08-22T12:49:25+01:00


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