Tips for Collecting Antique Silver

Tuesday 26th July 2022 - Cara Bentham


Tips for Collecting Antique Silver

If you are looking to get into silver collecting, this guide is a great resource, explaining some of the key things to look out for.

Antique silver is a popular and potentially lucrative market for collectors. With a huge variety of silver pieces produced throughout the years, there’s a lot to learn should you start collecting. If you’re new to collecting antique silver, this short guide will provide the need-to-know basics to help you get started.

Understand what options there are for collecting antique silver

Antique silver is a broad market with a massive variety of pieces produced over the years. Before you begin collecting, it’s good to know what options there are so you can narrow your focus. While almost anything can be produced or embellished with silver, there are several popular items amongst collectors which include:

  • Decorative pieces such as candlesticks and vases
  • Personal care items such as mirrors, dresser sets and hairbrushes
  • Jewellery such as lockets, chains and brooches
  • Coins
  • Commemorative medals
  • Dining elements such as cutlery and serving pieces
  • Useful items such as matchboxes, pens, sewing tools, vesta cases and magnifying glasses
  • Elements of clothing such as belt buckles, buttons and purse frames

When starting out your collection, it can be easier to choose a focus as this will help narrow your options. You could focus on collecting pieces from your favourite era or manufacturer or perhaps simply focus on collecting a specific type of object.

Learn about silver plating and content

Understanding the different types of silver before buying anything for your collection is important. While antique silver is real silver, solid silver pieces are uncommon. This is because solid silver is too soft for practical use. Most of the pieces on the market, therefore, are either silverplated or sterling silver.

Sterling silver is made from 92.5% solid silver. The remaining 7.5% comes from other metals, which help hold its shape over time and make it more durable for practical use. The majority of sterling silver pieces were produced in the 19th and 20th centuries. They tend to be clearly marked with the number ‘925’ or the word ‘sterling’.

Silver plated pieces are coated with a thin layer of silver which covers a metal base, typically nickel. Silver plated items are often identifiable by markings such as ‘silverplate’, ‘electroplate’ or the initials ‘EPNS’, which stands for electroplated nickel silver.

If a silver item is unmarked, it is likely silver plated. However, there is always a chance it is sterling silver. A good way to tell whether an unmarked item is sterling silver is by placing it in hot water. Sterling silver items will get very hot and retain the heat because silver is a better heat conductor than base metals. Things that don’t get very hot or cool quickly are likely to be silver plated.

Learn about different markings on silver pieces

Silver hallmarks or makers marks are tiny designs, numbers or stamped initials which are typically found on the back or underside of silver pieces. These can help you identify a particular manufacturer or the date or location in which an item was produced.

Look for markings in unobtrusive places on an object. If it is difficult to read, you may need to remove surface tarnish by dipping a cotton bud into silver polish and swirling gently around the marked area.

Once you can clearly read the markings, look them up online to help you identify the manufacturer and possibly the date the item was produced. This will help you assess the value of silver objects. The Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks and Makers’ Marks is an excellent resource to use.

Learn how to date silver pieces

It’s important to learn how to date silver pieces as this will help you assess the value of an item. Older pieces are typically worth more.

Hallmarked pieces are relatively easy to date. Most silver manufacturers change their marks every few years, which allows us to easily narrow down the date an item was produced. To do this, simply compare the known marks from a manufacturer to identify the date range for a specific piece.

For pieces which are not hallmarked, you can get a good idea of the date range by looking for design clues that point to a specific era. To do this, you will need to know a bit about popular styles and motifs during a given era.

Art Deco silver was a popular design between 1915 – 1935. Pieces from this era may be identifiable by repeated design elements, simple lines and geometric shapes.

Silver pieces produced during the aesthetic movement (1860 – 1890) will often have nature motifs, simple lines, hand engraving and Asian-inspired images.

Art Nouveau pieces were produced between 1890 – 1910. They will often feature elaborate floral images, flowing lines, long-haired women and animals.

If you are unsure about the date of a particular piece, you can always take it to a specialist for evaluation.

Inspect the condition of an item before buying

Before buying a silver piece, always examine its condition. Damage can detract from the value of an item so look out for heavy corrosion, scratches, broken areas, dents and worn silverplate revealing the base metal underneath.

Generally speaking, damaged pieces should be avoided. However, a damaged item may still be valuable if it is particularly old or rare.

If you are able to physically view and touch an item, this is the best way to examine silver pieces for damage. You’ll be able to check the texture, which gives clues to damage or poor repair jobs. However, when looking to purchase an item online, this is not always possible due to distance. In these cases, be sure to closely inspect any images of a piece, read the item description and ask questions of the seller about its condition.

Learn how to care for antique silver

Silver is a delicate metal which requires special care. To preserve the pieces in your collection, it’s essential that you learn how to properly care for them.

Choose a silver polish specifically formulated for silver, not a variety of different metals, and select the gentlest one you can find. Every time silver is polished, a small amount of metal can be removed, so only polish items when absolutely necessary. This is especially important for silver-plated items as over-polishing can expose the base metal underneath and significantly reduce the value. To minimise the need for polishing, store silver objects in tarnish, preventing cases or bags.

Wash your silver items regularly in water with very mild soap. Try to avoid using silver pieces in a way that might get them dirty, such as for serving food. If your silver pieces do come into contact with foods containing acid or egg, be sure to wash them immediately as these substances can tarnish silver if left on its surface. However, most silver items were made to be used, and it is safe to do so. In fact, regular use, such as wearing silver jewellery, for example, can reduce the need for polishing.


Following these basic tips will help you get started with collecting antique silver. In addition, be sure to do your research to learn as much as possible about this delightful collecting focus. This will help you understand the history of different pieces and learn what’s valuable in this area.