Advice about Silver

The recommendations in this section have been tried and tested and found to be sound. These are tips for the novice rather than for the expert and are intended to help new collectors find their way and buy without regrets.
New tips will be added on a regular basis but they will not be in any particular sequence or order.
Other short Articles

Use your Breath
Use your Fingers
Cleaning Hallmarks
Cleaning Medals
Cleaning and care
Buying antique silver

Use your breath when buying
Breathing on silver will reveal a lot of secrets. By breathing on a piece of silver and causing it to mist up, a variety of repairs and faults can be detected, including, for example:-

Thin spots where coats of arms or crests have been erased may have been replaced by a shield of new silver with a coat of arms or crest engraved on it. By breathing on this shield, you would see the shadow of the solder around it.
Hallmarks which have been transposed from one object and let into a later copy. You would then see the shadow of the solder line around the hallmarks.
If initials or crests have been flooded out rather than erased, the shadow of what has been obscured is often still visible.

Very often, these faults are hidden by electroplating the object but with regular cleaning and use, the plate wears off revealing the fault again. Also, electroplating can make the object very bright and there is no patina.

The above are just thoughts which it is good to bear in mind. However, if you buy from a dealer whom you trust you should not come across any of these problems. If there is anything which makes you unhappy or unsure, the very best is to voice your worries to the dealer you are buying from and discuss the problem with him.

Use your fingers when buying
When buying silver, particularly forks and spoons, feel the object all over with your fingers. It is surprising how much you will learn about the piece which cannot be seen by the eye alone. Feel all round the edge of the bowls of spoons. If the edge is sharp, or curled over, the spoon has worn very thin. Press the centre of the bowl. If the centre gives, the bowl is very thin. Feel the ends of the tines on forks. If the ends are needle sharp then the tines have been cut and have "had attention". A little bit of evening out of the tines is perfectly acceptable as forks can wear in a very unsightly way over the years. But it is just as well to know. What you want to avoid is to buy forks which have had some tines stretched to match up with the others because this weakens the silver. If you are worried, talk to the vendor about this. Fork tines should be reasonably rigid. If they are very flexible, there is the danger that you are looking at a spoon which has been cut into a fork. (Jokingly known as a spork.)

Use your fingers, too, to look for weak spots on hollow ware. Apply gentle pressure all over to search for any places where the silver is thin. Weak spots are most usually found in the centre of salvers and the sides of coffee pots and tea pots, as well as sugar bowls and cream jugs. In fact, you should apply the gentle pressure test anywhere where there is a possibility that a coat of arms or crest has been erased. Apply gentle pressure on existing coats of arms and crests on hollow ware as well, in case the original coat of arms has been erased and a new one has been engraved on top. This would weaken the silver considerably unless it was done with care. Take the liners out of salts and apply gentle pressure to the base. Some salts look quite sturdy to the naked eye but, in fact, have a paper-thin base due to frequent trips to the silversmith to remove corrosion. Weak spots will inevitably get weaker with continued use and cleaning of the object. So it is best to be warned before you buy.

Run your fingers over crests and coats of arms. If the engraving feels very sharp to the touch, it is quite possible that it was done later or that the original engraving has been sharpened up more recently. Compare the state of the engraving with the general condition of the object. A strong discrepancy would confirm that the engraving is later. There are often genuine reasons for later engraving. A family may have acquired a title and would then have no hesitation to engrave their silver with their family crest or coat of arms at a date which is much later than that of the silver. The engraving of initials, crests and coats of arms was an endemic way of marking your ownership of silver until well into the 20th century. The peak was in the Georgian and Victorian era. When titled families wanted to sell some of their silver, they would often have their crest or coat of arms erased before selling.

Cleaning hallmarks on silver
Very often hallmarks on pieces of silver are clogged with the dirt of ages or the residue from a great deal of cleaning. A very simple way to clean the hallmarks is as follows:- take a four-cornered match from a small match box and wet the wooden end well. Apply the wet end of the match in a circular motion to the hallmarks. All the dirt will be cleaned out and the hallmarks will become as clear as they possibly can be. If the hallmarks are too small for the end of a match, use a wet orange stick very gently or splice the match stick in two.

Cleaning Medals
Tempting as it is at times, the cleaning of medals is very much frowned on by numismatists. The reason for this is that cleaning will blunt the crispness of the medal and the greater the crispness, the greater the value of the medal. Cleaning would also interfere with the toning of a medal. Toning is also considered to be important. The only acceptable resort, therefore, is to wash the medal in warm, soapy water using a very soft brush and possibly an orange stick if there are any stubborn corners of dirt. Use both brush and orange stick very gently indeed.

Cleaning and care of silver
Whatever product you use to clean your silver will inevitably remove a very slight layer. Therefore, it is important to use the least abrasive materials, such as silver foam or liquid polish and to make sure that you buy the long-term variety. In the UK, Goddard’s is a very reliable brand.

Silver is a very soft metal and scratches very easily. Never use a metal polish intended for copper or brass and never use wire wool or an abrasive kitchen pad.

Your silver-cleaning box should be equipped with:-

Once your silver is clean, you can maintain it for quite a while by dusting it with a soft cloth and washing it in warm, soapy water, after which you need to rinse it well and then dry the article immediately with a soft, dry kitchen towel.

This is where the impregnated gloves come in very handy because if warm, soapy water is no longer enough, you can rub up the silver very effectively without getting your hands dirty. Make sure that the gloves have a white or cream lining because some of them have red linings, which give you red hands! Never wash impregnated gloves. The dirtier they look, the better they clean. These gloves can be found in the haberdashery department of large department stores. In London, you can find them at any of the John Lewis Stores, also at Selfridges and Harrods.

If you have silver which is not in daily use, it is better to put it away and keep it as air-tight as possible. You can wrap the silver in acid-free tissue or tarnish-proof felt and put it in a cupboard or drawer. Tarnish does not actually harm silver and although it looks ugly, it is not corrosive. Therefore, it is quite unnecessary to clean silver which is in store and it is far better to clean it only when you take it out to use it.

Silver dip is a wonderful aid to cleaning but must be used with caution. It is ideal for cleaning the deep parts of ornate work in conjunction with cotton-buds or a soft toothbrush or an orange stick. However, continual use will wear the silver down and soften the sharpness of ornate work. Therefore, silver dip is a great help in cleaning an ornate piece initially but should only be used very rarely after that. Also, silver dip should be applied to the object very briefly and should then be rinsed off thoroughly. Much harm has been done to the finials of teapot lids, for example, by cleaning the teapot with silver dip and not rinsing properly afterwards so that the dip runs under the finial where it may not be rinsed properly and then corrodes the silver.
Silver dip cleans silver but does not polish it. Therefore, it is necessary to polish the piece of silver in order to bring it back to its normal colour.

The one time that silver dip can be used regularly is for the cleaning of cutlery after it has been used to eat sulphurous foods such as egg yolk, especially in mayonnaise and brussel sprouts and peas, etc. Wash the cutlery in warm, soapy water, then dip it for a moment into the silver dip jar. Rinse the cutlery copiously in water (hot or cold) and dry immediately with a dry, soft cloth.

Everybody has their own methods of cleaning silver so the above points are only suggestions and warnings. But do not be afraid of your silver. Often, it has survived for many hundreds of years. If you treat it gently, it will clean up beautifully.

Cleaning of Old Sheffield Plate and electro-plate
The above suggestions apply but even more so. Since there is a relatively thin layer of silver on these items, diminishing returns can set in very quickly if highly abrasive cleaning products are used. It is best, if possible to stick to rubbing up with the impregnated gloves or mittens or an impregnated cloth and clean with caution at all times.

Buying antique silver
It is always best to buy silver of any value from a dealer who belongs to a reputable trade association, such as the BADA (British Antique Dealers’ Association), or the LAPADA (London And Provincial Antique Dealers’ Association). Both these Associations have Codes of Practice with which their members should comply. The fact that dealers have taken the trouble to apply for membership and have been accepted, shows that they are serious and established dealers. There are a great many dealers who are not members of a trade association who are extremely serious and totally sound. However, the backing of a trade association does give a certain reassurance to a purchaser who does not know the dealer he is buying from. Furthermore, if there should be a serious dispute between purchaser and dealer, both parties have recourse to the trade association to help mediate.

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