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American Antique Silver, Marked and Unmarked

Practically all antique American silver, the work of craftsmen who plied their trade for better than two centuries, is marked. The touch marks at first were one or two initials, sometimes with a small device added. Later, from about 1760 to 1870, many silversmiths used their surnames, with or without initials.

In England such marking was required by law. In.the American colonies and later the United States, no silversmith was legally bound to impress what he made with either symbol or name. They did it rather from pride in their work which settled beyond question what pieces were the products of each silversmithing shop.

Nevertheless, pieces do turn up on which no mark can be found. With some, there are faint indications of a mark, erased by use and polishing. Others bear no indication that they were ever marked. The owner or' a marked piece of silver is fortunate. With the help of one of the several books of check lists of known American silversmiths, he can determine the approximate age and provenance of his piece. Such lists give names, dates, and localities, compiled from all kinds of records. Consequently, the owner can acquire definite information that may materially increase the market value of his piece.

John Coburn of Boston who lived from 1725 to 1803. He was a prolific silversmith, his silver being well known to collectors and bringing good prices. When auctioned several years ago, this small pitcher brought $225. The slightly larger but unmarked pitcher, beautifully made and of the same period, brought only one hundred dollars. An obviously antique, pear-shaped piece with scroll handles, short legs, and leafshaped feet, typical of pre-Revolutionary years, it will serve just as well for cream as the one by Coburn, but lack of a mark reduced its price by over half.

Fine unmarked pieces offer the collector an opportunity to gather excellent silver at bargain prices, provided he knows American silver sufficiently well to date examples by shape and workmanship. For example, I saw a silver porringer of no later date than 1800 auctioned for fifty dollars merely because it bore no mark or trace of one. It would have brought more than double had it borne the touch of a recorded silversmith. Again, while a bobbin-shaped pitcher bearing the mark of Paul Revere can bring as much as $2,500, his work always bringing much higher prices than equally well-designed pieces by other contemporary craftsmen, an unmarked piece can be acquired for a tenth of that price, or even less.

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