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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

The Collecting Of Old Silverware
(Part 2 Of 3)



Neither the date-marks nor makers' marks are hall-marks, properly speaking, though all marks on silver are commonly referred to as hall-marks. The true hall-marks are the leopard and the lion. The leopard's head was used first, from 1300, and in 1545 a lion passant was added. These marks were punched into the metal with a die, the animal appearing in a shield or oblong field.

Until 1550 a small crown appeared over the lion; from 1557 to 1680 the puncheon followed the outline of the lion's body; after that the lion appeared on an oblong shield.

These various forms of the hall-mark indicate certain broad periods, and are sometimes helpful in determining the age of a piece of silver when the date-mark is indistinct or there is any doubt about it.

The date-letter or year-mark system, which I will describe more fully later, seems to have been definitely settled about 1518, for, although there was an alphabetical system more than fifty years before, beginning with the Lombardic A, a number of errors crept in, and it is customary to go back to 1518 as an accurate starting-point. From that time a new letter was used each year up to the present day.

Charles II raised the standard of the metal, and in 1695 the new quality was given a new markBritannia, sitting, in an oblong puncheon, with a lion's head, erased. The standard was found to be too soft for practical purposes, however, and in 1720 there was a return to the old, and present, standard of metal, with the leopard's head and lion passant. Naturally, these Britannia pieces are rare.

Makers began to use their private marks about 1363. At first they used the first two letters of the surname; about 1739 the initials were substituted.

For example, prior to this date Paul Lamerie's mark was La; afterward it became P. L.

Thus, there were four marks on the silver up to 1784-leopard's head, lion, date-letter, and maker's mark. In 1784 the sovereign's head was added-the governmental customs mark-making five punches in all.

There were changes made from time to time in the fixed hall-marks, which are worth noting. For example, the leopard's head was set in a lowing its outlines, until 1678, when it began to appear in a symmetrical shield of five sides. In 1696 the head was reduced somewhat in size. In 1720 the leopard lost his beard, and his shield became oblong, and in 1823 his crown was taken away from him.

These were all London marks; there were, in addition, provincial marks. The Edinburgh hall-mark dates from 1457. It was a triple-turreted castle or tower. The standard mark was a thistle, which was substituted for the assay-master's initials in 1757. The date-letter cycles began in Edinburgh in 1681. Glasgow had a curious emblem-a tree with a bird in the top, a bell hanging from one branch, and a fish across the trunk, stamped in an oval puncheon. The Sheffield and Birmingham hall-marks were a crown and an anchor respectively, with the lion passant as the standard mark. Dublin had a crowned harp. Other special marks were long used in Chester, Newcastle, and many Scottish towns. Familiarity with these provincial marks will often prevent confusion in studying old silver.

Now to go back to the subject of date-marks. I cannot do more than barely indicate what there is in the subject for those who wish to go into it seriously. Different cities or Halls had different year-marks;

I will deal only with the London marks as being by far the most important.

Each year had assigned to it a letter of the alphabet, which was stamped on every piece of silver made or sold in London that year. When the alphabet was used up they went back to A again, taking, usually, a slightly different form of letter. These alphabets stopped at the letter U, so that each of these cycles is an even twenty years in length.

While I cannot attempt to describe all these different letters, it may be interesting to show a table of them for a period of a century and a half, during which time some of the finest silverware of any age was made. These are the forms given the letters:

1696 to 1715 -Old court hand in five-sided shield.

1716 to 1735-Old Roman capitals in five-sided shield.

1736 to 1755-Roman lower-case letters. After the letter c the shield became more ornate.

1756 to 1775-Early English capitals with shield shaped and curved at the bottom.

1776 to 1795-Roman lower-case, with same shield.

1796 to 1815-Roman capitals. Shield with cutoff corners at top.

1816 to 1835-Roman lower-case in same shield.

1836 to 1855-Old English capitals. Shield with square corners at top.

These were followed by Old English and Roman alphabets in various shaped shields.

To know these letters thoroughly, the collector should possess one of the excellent English books containing facsimiles of them all. There are several such books, supplied with scores of full-page plates.

And yet, a knowledge of the date-letters is not entirely sufficient. The collector must be familiar with the entire system. For example, the date-letter in 1780 is almost precisely like that of 1820. In 1780, however, there was no sovereign's head, and the leopard had a crown. These marks, beside the date-letter, thus determine accurately the exact year of manufacture.

Simply as an example, let us take an old silver tankard. It bears the head of King George, and hence was made after 1783. It also bears the maker's initials, the lion and a crowned leopard. This proves the piece to have been made before 1823, when the crown was dropped. Therefore, however indistinct the form of the date-letter may be, we have two limiting dates. On this particular piece, however, appears a lower-case Roman k, so that the piece must be in one of the two Roman lower-case cycles 1776 to 1795, or 1816 to 1835. The letter k would make the year either 1786 or 1826. But we know that it isn't later than 1823, because of the crown of the leopard. Therefore the date of the piece is exactly 1786. Furthermore, if the puncheon were distinct, the shield would be seen to be slightly different in shape from one of 1826.

In other words, every piece of old silver presents an amusing little puzzle or enigma-find the date.

Unfortunately for the peace of mind of some owners of old silver, there are a few genuine pieces on which no hall-marks appear. Once in a while some old silversmith evaded the law, but in most of such cases marks have been worn off, or have disappeared through repairing. This is particularly true of the old silver in this country, much of which has been worn thin by much scrubbing and polishing at the hands of zealous Yankee housewives. In any case, the presence of marks certainly affects the market value of a piece.

The old silver in this country is largely English Georgian, and that is one reason why I should advise the collecting of this class of ware. It possesses a historical significance for Americans that no other sort possesses to anything like so great an extent. Our great-grandmothers and their mothers used some of the ornate Lamerie ware, and certain openwork basket-like pieces, which were inspired by Dutch influences; but most of the old Colonial ware was Classic Georgian, graceful and chaste. I know of no handsomer pieces than the octagonal shapes that were among the popular forms of that day.

The first step in the matter of collecting is a knowledge of frauds and imitations, for no class of antiques is free from the curse of counterfeiting.

As in furniture, the manufacture of frank reproductions is an honorable business, serving to preserve beautiful styles and forms in an age when the originals are becoming scarce. It is the imitation with intent to deceive that merits the condemnation of every lover of old things.


[Continue To Part 3 Of Article]




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