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Market taking a shine to silver

Last week my wife came home from a weekend with her girlfriends with photographs of a sterling silver tea service and a sterling flatware set. Her girlfriend wondered what it was worth and whether or not she should sell it. It reminded me that the price of sterling silver spiked to about $13.00 an ounce a couple months ago (for years it has hovered around $5.00-6.00 an ounce) and made me wonder just how many tea services are hidden away in closets and basements all over the country.

Is there one lurking in your storage space? Silver pieces that your mother or grandmother handed down with love? Many of us received grandmother's sterling silver flatware service as a wedding present. And how often has it seen the light of day? Maybe Thanksgiving and Christmas two years ago when the relatives came. No one wants to take care of silver anymore - no more polishing, no more tea parties, no more time!

Whenever metals like gold and silver begin selling for a higher per ounce price, people hear about it and begin to think about selling off what they own. You might have a collection of jewelry, coins, or other precious metals. If, like my wife's friend, you are thinking of selling your silver, here are some tips to get you started.

Silver basics

Make sure you know the difference between silver plate and sterling silver - because there is a big difference! In some countries, such as the United States, no national hallmark was ever adopted, and the word "STERLING" or "925" was simply stamped into the piece. Because of this, some companies within the U.S., such as Tiffany and Gorham, adopted their own hallmarking systems. For example, pieces from the Gorham company can be identified by a Lion Passant (or Lion Rampant, depending on the year), an anchor and the letter "G", and sometimes an accompanying number to indicate the style.

In addition to the hallmarks, silver manufacturers often applied their own specific stamp. For example, the letters "T. and Co." indicates a piece manufactured by Tiffany and Company. As mentioned above, the letter "G" indicated the Gorham Company. These stamps were as unique as today's logos, and disputes often arose when one company copied another's stamp.

Silver plate is silver over copper and often marked EPNS (electro plate nickel silver). Silver plate is very little silver; usually a thin film of silver over copper (sometimes brass) but mostly copper.

You will see typical looking silver tea services in both sterling and silver plate. Make sure you know what you have by checking the markings yourself or asking a reputable dealer to check it out and appraise it for you. Tea services usually include a coffee pot (the taller pot with hinged top), a tea pot (smaller, squatter pot), a sugar bowl (with top), creamer, and a waste bowl (usually no handles). These pieces usually rest on a large tray that might be silver plate even though the pots are sterling. Your set might also include tea spoons, sugar cube tongs, and more.

Other popular silver includes flat ware sets, serving pieces (big spoons, forks, pie servers), nut dishes, platters, bowls, trophy's, and other presentation pieces.

Shine it or shelve it

As a ballpark figure, a silver plate tea service (depending on quality, fanciness, and condition), could range from $150 to $600. A sterling tea service, again depending on quality could range from $450 to $10,000. Sterling flatware these days ranges from $400 to $20,000 depending on who made it, the hallmarks, the monogram, how many pieces per place setting, how many place settings, how many big serving pieces, and generally, how many pieces in total.

1. Find a reputable antique dealer in your community or email me if you need help figuring out what you have.

2. Find a reputable jewelry store nearby that also sells sterling silver items. Tiffany & Co. is a good choice if there is one in your area.

3. Ask for an appraisal of your silver and then ask if either the antique dealer or the jewelry store is interested in buying it from you.