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The Collecting Of Old Silverware
(Part 1 Of 3)



IT is impossible to maintain that any one form of collecting is better than any other-that it is more absorbing to the devotee, or seems less foolish to the scoffer. There are certain elements in the collecting of old silver, however, which differentiate it from all other forms of collecting.

Old silver is intrinsically valuable for its metal alone, and intrinsically beautiful in its workmanship. Furthermore, the collecting of old silver, because of the system of hall-marks, which will be explained later, may be reduced more nearly to an exact science than any other form of collecting.

In old furniture we look for style, age, and material, and in Georgian furniture for the maker; in old blue china the salient points are maker and pictorial subject; in silver we seek for the year of manufacture, style, and history, but, above all, for the individual beauty and usefulness of the piece. The value of old silver is real value.

The collection of old silver has been wide-spread for many years, but its popularity is increasing rapidly, and whether as a fad or a serious business, it is yearly gaining devotees who cannot be appealed to by any. other form of collecting.

In no other line can the collector afford to be more conservative. Not a single thing need be accepted merely because it is old; there are enough things that are both useful and beautiful to be had, and the old silver collection need not be large or comprehensive' to be valuable.

There have been silversmiths and silverware for so long that there is silver in existence representing practically every period of history back to the deluge. The amateur collector might as well recognize first as last the immensity of the field he is starting out to delve in, and decide to work one corner of it thoroughly.

As a matter of fact, leaving out of consideration for the time being those enthusiasts who possess a personal hobby and recognize no other, the average householder in America to-day, if he is interested in such matters at all, is interested chiefly in the French, American, and English ware. I am told by dealers that old French silverware is becoming extremely popular for decorative purposes, and the ornate beauty and fine craftsmanship of some of this French silverware more than justify this popularity.

Americans would naturally be interested in American ware first, then English ware. The American ware should be the more interesting historically, except that the fascination of hall-marks is absent from it.One cannot determine the exact year of its make, though the maker's name is often given and serves as a clue. The American ware, moreover, is not as artistic in form nor as fine in workmanship as the English ware. It forms, nevertheless, an extremely interesting study, and considerable new light has of late been shed on it.

This interest was manifest at an exhibition of American silverware held at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 1906. The pieces shown there were nearly all patterned more or less closely after the contemporaneous English styles. Only a few showed distinct Dutch influence.

The earliest American silversmith of note was John Hull of Boston. His partner was Robert Sanderson. They used a mark formed of their fnitials as early as 1659. Another early silversmith was Jeremiah Drummer, their apprentice. Another whose work was noteworthy was John Cony, who was followed by a number of others during the eighteenth century, whose work is well worth the study of such collectors as care to confine themselves to a somewhat restricted field.

This discussion, however, will be confined chiefly to old British ware. It was English silver and Sheffield plate which graced most of the sideboards and cupboards of our great-grandmothers. Furthermore, while the French silversmiths made use of a hallmark system similar to that of the English, it was not as accurate nor as comprehensive, and the historic classification of French silver is often difficult. It is the English hall-mark and date system that, to me at least, makes the study of English silverware so unusually interesting.

It is not my intention to be arbitrary. All silver is good silver, but I think the average collector will do well to confine himself to narrow limits, although those limits do not necessarily have to.be the ones I choose.

Confining ourselves to English ware, then, we find several kinds: ecclesiastical silver, college and corporation plate, purely ornamental silver, and domestic ware. This last offers by far the best field for the average collector. But from the beginning up to the present, many, many styles of silver have been brought out, and one simply cannot hope to come close to them all. To my mind, the English domestic silverware dating from 1700 to 1850 includes all that one man can hope to know much about or possess much of.

Now just what sort of silver was made during this time? How can you tell a piece when you see it? And what is it worth when you possess it?

To begin with, there are as many different styles of silversmithing and ornamentation as there are decorative periods in the history of art. To know something of these styles is a prime requisite in determining when and where a piece of silver was made. There is French silverware strikingly typical of the Renaissance, Louis XIV, Louis XV, Louis XVI, and Empire styles, and all the rest of them, corresponding to the contemporary styles in architecture, furniture, and decoration. So in England there is the Jacobean, the Queen Anne, and the Georgian.

To be very brief, the eighteenth century marked the highest development of the silversmith's art in England. The work of this century far exceeds that of all others in variety and beauty.During this century came the Georgian period-a period of stately houses and wonderful mahogany furniture. It has always seemed to me as though the Renaissance spirit had gotten its second wind about the time of the Louis in France and the Georges in England. Every imaginable kind of tableware was manufactured in silver, and the grade was kept uniform by wise laws.

An English author has divided the century into three periods. First, the Queen Anne period from 1702 to 1714. The silver at this time was rather massive than graceful, though the forms were good, and there was little ornament. Second, the Larnerie period, from 1714 to 1727, named from a famous silversmith. Silver pieces improved in form and took on more ornamentation, until finally they became almost florid. In a general way, this was the rococo period, which in France culminated in the reign of Louis XV. Then followed the Classical or Georgian period proper, from the early part of George the Third's reign to the opening years of the nineteenth century. As was the case with furniture and architecture, the style in silverware became Greco-Roman in type-Roman in France and Greek in England, with a slightly modified style appearing in America, which we know as Colonial. It is this Classic type of Georgian which is perhaps the finest of all.

A study of the decorative styles in the silver of this period would be well worth while; I have merely hinted at the bare outline of such a study. As the styles changed constantly, though sometimes very gradually, they indicate pretty distinctly the age of a piece of silver or furniture.

But the most exact method of telling the age of a piece of British silverware is by the hall-marks. Indeed, this system has made the identification of English silverware more accurate and complete than of almost any other class of art objects. For record has been kept at the Goldsmiths' Hall, London, for five centuries, of all annual date-letters and of the registered silversmiths and their private marks.

Every mark on your old silver means something, and if you care to be sure about its age or maker, a study of these marks and the system is essential.

There are several authoritative books on the subject. In the limited space of a single chapter I can give only a general idea of the system, and must leave out much that would be helpful and interesting.

In 1337 King Edward III granted a charter to the Goldsmiths' Guild. During the reign of Edward IV the Goldsmiths' Company of London, as it came to be known, invented and put into practice an alpha betical system of marks, changing each year. There were similar codes in the provincial. assay offices. This system is one of the few bequests of the Middle Ages which have stood the test of time practically without change. By the provisions of this system we have not only a lasting index by which to judge the age of gold and silver, but we have a guaranty of genuineness and standard metal, for these marks were officially supervised and the laws were strict.


[Continue To Part 2 Of Article]




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