"How can I tell if my flatware is sterling or silverplated?"
This is our most frequently-asked question at SilverCollect.com. If a piece doesn't have the word "sterling," then it most likely is not sterling silver. The word "sterling" is found on American silver dating after 1860. Early American silver is very rare and was usually marked with only the maker's name or initials. Silverplate has the maker or company name and often includes terms such as "A1" or "quadruple plate." These are various descriptions of the amount of applied silver.
Whether you choose to collect sterling or silver plate flatware or holloware, the following tips apply:
Choose a Style, Era or Maker -- Reflect upon your lifestyle and personal taste, then make choices that will be a good fit. Will you be using your silver daily, or will you save it for special occasions and holiday celebrations? There are many specialty areas of silver collecting, and some of them are more "fancy" than others. Some collectors devote their attention to a specific pattern while others collect a particular maker or era. Some only collect a particular type of piece, such as fish forks or bon bon servers, while many expand into all areas.
Mix-n-Match -- Don't be afraid to mix and match patterns. This collecting technique has great aesthetic appeal on a table. This is a wonderful option particularly with hard-to-find, discontinued flatware patterns and is often a must for putting together a set large enough for affordable entertaining.
Wear or Damage -- Signs of use do not necessarily detract from value, while damage may or may not. Slight damage on a rare flatware or hollow ware piece will not significantly reduce value, if at all. The price of a tarnished piece should be signficantly lower than retail. Be wary of buying tarnished silver online as it can hide otherwise obvious wear, damage or repair. Picking up tarnished pieces at estate sales and flea markets may be an affordable option, but checking them closely for damage remains important.
Monograms -- Many collectors view old, elaborate monograms as a lost art form and historically important. It does not detract from the desirability or value of a piece when a monogram is present. Most pieces are, however, even more valuable without a monogram. As you become more familiar with silver, you will be able to detect monogram removal. Monogram removal can damage a piece of silver and significantly reduce its value.
Authenticity -- Some collectors frown upon pieces that have been updated, such as those with replacement knife blades. Silverplated blades are often found with wear. They can easily be replaced on hollow handle knives, so some collectors prefer to have them refitted with stainless steel blades. However, stainless steel was not introduced in flatware until the early 1920s. This is one of those aspects of collecting that can be a matter of personal preference, but you do need to be aware that your flatware may go down in value if you alter the knife blades.
Repair -- Dents, disposal or other damage can be repaired by a silversmith. Pieces can also be replated. The cost is prohibitive for more common items, but is certainly worthwhile to restore rare antique pieces.
Modified Items -- Be aware that these exist and learn how to determine if a piece has been modified from its original state. Common flatware pieces are sometimes altered to make them appear to be more rare and valuable pieces. For example, spoons are sometimes cut to resemble ice cream forks or a sugar spoon may have been pierced to resemble a sugar sifter. Look for signs that pieces have been modified and avoid purchasing them for your collection.
Forgeries -- New forgeries in popular and rare patterns appear for sale regularly on the Internet. In particular, salt spoons and rare pieces such as asparagus servers. Many of these pieces have no maker's marks. Further, forged maker's marks in silver have appeared for hundreds of years. The age of a piece does not necessarily indicate it's authenticity so learn as much as you can before investing in an expensive piece.
Educate Yourself -- Many good silver books are available in the collecting section of your local book store or library. Sullivan recommends these titles on marks:
Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers by Dorothy T. Rainwater and Judy Redfield
The Book of Old Silver, Seymour B. Wyler (American and Foreign)
And for identification and value:
Silverplated Flatware, An Identification and Value Guide by Tere Hagan
Sterling Flatware, An Identification and Value Guide by Tere Hagan