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Silverplate & Sterling: How To Tell Them Apart
Published in the Fall 2014 edition of Vintage KC Magazine
Written by Michael and James Fry

If you have been at the picking game very long it is just a matter of time before you strike treasure.  Maybe not pieces of eight, but treasure in the form of sterling silver flatware & serving pieces.  Your grandma’s attic, estate sales, and even the occasional garage sale can all hold valuable pieces if you know what to look for.

There is a lot of confusion about silver pieces and what is truly valuable.  Many times our estate sale clients have told us that their parents have a large collection of sterling silver and upon examination we find that it is all plated pieces.  While working through one of these large silverplate collections at a recent estate sale in Leawood we discovered one platter marked “925” on the back. Most of the similar looking platters we priced around $45, but because of that mark we were able to price and sell this one piece for $1,200. Understanding the difference between sterling and silverplate is where the money is made.

The first step in learning about sterling and silverplate is to know how they are made and a little of their history. Sterling silver is a metal alloy containing at least 92.5% pure silver. The other 7.5% are other metals, like copper, that give strength and prevent the piece from bending. Sterling silver flatware and holloware rose to their height of popularity during the Victorian era. Hosting an extravagant dinner party was all the more impressive when every utensil in the room was made of a precious metal. Using sterling for your fine dining was a status symbol and let everyone know how wealthy you were. As with any status symbol the general public wanted the look without the hefty price tag. Enter silverplate. In the mid 19th century the process of electroplating was discovered. This enabled dinnerware manufacturers to cast a utensil in an inexpensive metal like zinc or steel then evenly cover the outside in a very thin coat of silver. Beginning around 1870 sales of silverplate items went through the roof and didn’t begin to slow until well into the 20th century. Due to the vast popularity of silverplate (making it a rather common item in households of a certain generation) and because of its low silver content, silverplated items are worth a mere fraction of their sterling cousins.

This brings us to the very important question: how do you tell them apart? The appearance of silverplated items is nearly identical to that of sterling. It can be a challenge for the uninformed to identify the piece as sterling, often mistaking it for a plated piece and pricing it at a tenth of its value (or vice versa). The most common and easiest form of identification is looking at the marks impressed on the piece. Articles made of sterling in the United States after the 1870’s should be marked in one of three ways. The word “sterling”, “925”, or “925/1000” will be embossed on the piece, usually on the underside. Prior to the late 1800’s flatware and holloware pieces were made of coin silver (literally made of melted coins) and are comprised of 90% silver content. Identifying these can be a bit more time intensive. The website 925-1000.com documents the vast expanse of marks and is a great resource for delving into the world of antique coin silver. A few other marks to be on the lookout for include “800” and “900” both German marks for 80% and 90% silver, “mexican silver” which is 90% silver, and “958 pieces of silver” which has 95.8% silver content. Be aware that there are fakes with proper sterling marks on the market.  After identifying the marks, or lack there of, pass the piece in question under a strong magnet. If the piece is magnetic then it is not sterling.

After identifying an item as sterling, finding its value is fairly simple. Weigh the piece and input the weight in an online silver scrap calculator like SilverRecyclers.com to calculate its scrap value.  Additionally, checks sites like Ebay.com as some pieces and flatware sets are highly sought after and can be worth much more then silver scrap value.  A great resource to identify sterling silver flatware patterns is Replacements.com, just know that their prices are on the extreme high side of retail.  Ebay.com will give you a more accurate current market value for your piece.

Finding underpriced sterling pieces can be rare but not out of the question. Multiple Brown Button regulars have told us stories of the $5 serving bowl bought at a garage sale that they sold for $450, or the $20 set of flatware that they sold for $1,200. At times these pieces are being sold by the uninformed, other times they were just plain overlooked. We have seen marks that were well worn or embossed in a hard to see area. These valuable finds are just waiting to be discovered by the persistent and knowledgeable hunter.

Now that you know that sterling has meaning beyond Mad Men, we wish you a profitable pursuit in your silver sleuthing.

 Go to VintageKCmag.com for their full backlog of issues.

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