The sale of old silver with forged hall-marks, which increase its
value, while a dangerous proceeding, is known to be fairly common,
especially in England, due to the rapid rise in value of old silverware
during the past decade.
One way of counterfeiting old silver is to make a perfect copy of an
old piece in some alloy, and give it a thick coating of silver by the
modern electroplate process. Such counterfeits are treated with a good
deal of skill, hall-marks and all being reproduced. On the bottom or
inside of the piece may sometimes be found the granulated or crystallized
surfaces left by this process, though these are usually tooled over if
Sometimes English hall-marks have been cut from a spoon or other
small article of great age, and transferred to a larger piece of more
modern make. Though cleverly done, the edges of the borrowed section can
usually be detected by a magnifyingglass; sometimes sulphur fumes will
show it; a blowpipe will almost always reveal the solder. While one
cannot always make use of these tests, it should be borne in mind that a
genuine hall-mark does not always serve as a guaranty of the piece that
There are, in general, two motives for forging hall-marks: first, to
pass off inferior metal as standard; second, to make a piece appear to
be older than it is. In the first case, if a piece is suspected, the
base metal can be discovered by some method of assaying. In the second
case the safest way is to study period styles as well as hall-marks, to
see if they agree. A hall-mark of the year 1750 on a piece of silver of
the style made in 1800 would be good ground for suspicion.
Another matter to study is the method of manufacture. The old
Georgian silver was hand-made, and most of it shows hammer-marks on the
inside of cups, tankards, etc. Look for these. Don't be misled by marks of
wear and tear; they are easily counterfeited. Also study the color and
appearance of old silver. An expert can tell the difference at a glance.
There is a soft, white sheen on the old ware, the result of exposure
and cleaning, which is strikingly different from a newly made piece of
ware, no matter what the style of finish. Finally, study the relative
position of the various marks as they appear on authentic pieces. They
were not punched in at random, but had fixed positions. Counterfeiters
have not often observed this. The general appearance of marks tells much.
You will not find them uniformly clean and even in genuine pieces; they
usually are exactly so in bogus pieces.
One way of increasing the value of old pieces of silver is by the
method that in furniture is spoken of as "glorifying." That is, ornaments
are sometimes soldered to old but plain pieces, or a plate or mug
without decoration may be chased and engraved, and the value thus increased.
The French are very clever at this. They sometimes bury the "glorified"
piece or treat it with acids which oxidize the new parts and give them
the appearance of age.A simple wash of acid is not often used now, as
it can be quickly removed on the polishing -wheel, and is not a safe
enough method. Your French antiquarian will also invent a thrilling
pedigree for his beautiful old piece, in which a Spanish convent or a Duke of
Burgundy usually figures.
It is still easier to forge the later English ware, and much of it
is done. Sometimes clever transformations have been achieved by beating
a plain saucepan or plates into a tankard or other more elaborate
piece, leaving the hall-marks intact, and glorifying at will.
And so the wisest collectors have been deceived and we all take
chances. There is no sure rule for determining what is genuine. The hints
already given will help, and experience will do the rest. Always look
for new parts, evidence of soldering, etc. Another point to be noted is
that old spoons and forks of hammered metal can be easily bent at the
handle; modern articles of cast silver are rigid.
Of course, not all additions are fraudulent "glorifications"; some
are honest repairs. Some important pieces are thus patched,
occasionally to the obliteration of a hall-mark.
I fancy, however, that not many of my readers will go into the
collection of old silver very extensively, nor ever buy very much. If you
do, it is possible to get pieces of old tableware, both useful and
beautiful, which are unquestionably genuine. The best dealers in our large
cities are thoroughly reliable. But you may always expect to pay a good
round sum for what you get.
I imagine that most people are more interested in the preservation
of a few old heirlooms than in the establishment of a large collection.
I have told how the age of these old pieces may be determined. By
diligent study of books and an examination of the maker's mark and
town-mark, you may discover when the piece was made and by whom.
Now as to the actual money value of the piece. That is pretty hard
to determine. It will never be less than the weight-value of the metal,
but its market value will be determined by age, beauty of design,
rarity of pattern, etc. Previous to 1902 the highest price ever paid was at
the rate of $345 an ounce. The highest price since then, obtained for a
piece of silver at Christie's, the famous London auction rooms, was
$1,65o an ounce. On December 12, 1908, a James I goblet, a little over
seven inches high, bearing the date-mark of 1606, and weighing six ounces
twelve pennyweight, sold at Christie's for £600, and a smaller goblet,
five and one-half inches high, dated 1608, was sold at the rate of £95
an ounce. Also a set of four circular salt-cellars was sold for £160
per ounce. On December 10, at the same house, a pair of Charles II
candlesticks, eleven inches high, dated 1672, brought $7,100.
In this country a great variety of old articles in silver-too many
to enumerate-are to be obtained in the shops and elsewhere-beautiful
meat-platters, teapots, etc. The prices will usually seem high to the
uninitiated, but the foregoing figures will give the reader an idea of the
extent to which the present demand has advanced the values. Often fine
pieces are to be bought at a lower rate, but good specimens almost
always bring good prices. Your old silver is certainly valuable, however
hard it may be to appraise it, and its value has been rapidly
I have not attempted, to give anything like a complete bibliography
of the best works dealing with the subjects discussed, though in some
cases I have mentioned a few worth knowing. On the subject of old
furniture, for example, there are literally scores of books worth consulting
and reading. For the sake of giving the reader a clue to the best
sources of information on old silverware, however, particularly as regards
full tables of hall-marks, I will append an abridged list of books that
may be consulted by the amateur antiquarian who wishes to know more
about the subject.
William Chaflers is one of the greatest authorities. He has written
a big book on the subject-"HallMarks on Gold and Silver"-and also an
abridged handbook edition which I have found very complete and
comprehensive. It was published by Gibbings & Company, London, 1897.
Another huge book of great value is "Old London Silver," by Montague
Howard, published by Batsford in London, in 1903. It is a volume of 400
pages, splendidly illustrated, showing many historic styles and forms.
A full collection of makers' marks and hall-marks is given.
A great mass of facts is to be found in "Old Plate," by John Henry
Buck. It contains many marks and is especially good on the old silver in
Another exhaustive work is "Old English Plate," by Wilfred Joseph
Cripps, published in igoi by John Murray, London. It is a book of 519
pages, and contains 2,600 marks. The same author wrote "Old French Plate"
and "College and Corporation Plate."