Collecting Vintage Sterling Silver and Silverplate Tableware

Updated on September 16, 2019
Dolores Monet profile image

After inheriting her grandmother's collection of antiques, Dolores has maintained an interest in the care and sale of vintage items.

Old sterling in Steiff's Rose pattern
Old sterling in Steiff's Rose pattern | Source

For over 100 years, sterling silver flatware stood as the hallmark of upper middle class success. When new technologies of the Industrial Revolution as well as American discoveries of silver ore increased production and lowered costs, a growing upper middle class fell under the spell of silver's white luster. Until the mid 20th century, brides registered their favorite pattern and began collecting place settings, tea sets, trays, olive forks, cake servers, meat and fish servers, sugar cube tongs, and a vast array of tableware and flatware.

Different sized utensils had designated places beside plates. During a meal, a diner switched forks for every course. Salad forks, dinner forks, and dessert forks bracketed each plate. A variety of utensils were specifically designed for cheeses, vegetables, for lunch, and for use by children.

Sterling vs Silverplate

Silver is a precious metal called argentum in Latin, specified as Ag on the Periodic Table of Elements. Soft and easy to work, silver needs the addition of another metal to make it useful. Sterling silver is an alloy containing 92.5% silver and 7.5% nickel or copper.

Sterling silver made in the US is marked with the word "sterling," or the number "925." British silver pieces display three coded marks: the first for city of production, the second a lion with a raised paw (called Lion Passant), then a single letter representing the year of production.

Silver plate was developed in the 1840s. A base metal is coated with a thin layer of silver. Silverplate is inexpensive and does not last as long as sterling.

Older, well used silverplate will often show wear especially on the ends of fork tines. Silver plate can be quite ornate and very pretty. It can be found in thrift stores or online for about $1.00 per utensil. Of course beautiful, unusual, or rare pieces will cost more. Some silverplate is of higher quality and has some heft to it.

Decorating magazines and some specialty shops offer mixed pattern place settings in silverplate. Mixing patterns can be a fun, eclectic way to set a table.

Occasionally silverplate is misrepresented online. Some sellers do not understand the difference. Look for sterling online from seller who offer close up pictures as well as the marker's mark on the back.

There are a few foreign companies that produce silverplate marked "sterling" or "925" and offer it online as sterling. The low prices should serve as a warning to avoid these fraudulent sellers.

Sterling on the left, silver plate on the right
Sterling on the left, silver plate on the right | Source
usually lighter in weight
deeper color and luster
usually lighter in color
less expensive
lasts for generations
lasts 20 years
marked Sterling or 925
marked silverplate
can be melted down for value
no melt value
A variety of silverplate can be beautiful and charming.
A variety of silverplate can be beautiful and charming. | Source

Collecting Sterling

Collecting sterling for investment is not the same as collecting for your own satisfaction. Sterling silver is an expensive commodity even though the demand has fallen in the last 50 years. Collecting for investment depends on the vagaries of fashion as well as the commodity market. Value depends entirely on demand. Grandmother's silver may be ornate and beautiful but collectors today gravitate toward sleeker, more modern pieces.

Collecting sterling silver demands a lot of research. There is so much to learn!

The Value of Sterling Silver

Silver has been mined for thousands of years and used for coinage and ornamentation. Oddly enough, it was more valuable in the 1200s than it is today. Discoveries of ore in the Americas lowered its value and made silver more available. Mid 19th century discoveries in the US, like the famous Nevada Comstock Lode lowered the prices even more.

Occasional price hikes can make the value of silver spike. There have been times in the past when the value soared briefly. At such times, silver flatware, tableware, and jewelry were melted down. As of August 2019, the price of silver was about $16.31 per ounce, down from August 2016 when it was $20.00 per ounce.

If you are looking at the price of silver, learn if the piece is weighed in standard ounces or troy ounces. A troy ounce is 10% heavier than a standard ounce.

Collectors are generally interested in products made by well known, high quality manufacturers of fine tableware, such as Tiffany. Highly coveted patterns earn top dollar while lesser patterns are worth little more than their melt value. In general, American brands are not as hot as British, European, and Russian items.

Obviously, a dinner fork will not be as valuable as a particular serving piece. A large set would include many dinner forks, but only one specific serving piece (like a cold meat fork, or a fish server). And many people purchased place settings without buying all the extra available pieces.

Remember that value is a relative tern. To an antique silver collector, a fork worth $25.00 may be relatively worthless. To many people, a $25.00 fork seems quite expensive.

Sterling silver forks in Stieff's Rose pattern.
Sterling silver forks in Stieff's Rose pattern. | Source

Inheriting Grandmother's Silver

If you find yourself with a box of grandmother's sterling, there are many options. You may decide to keep and use it. Sentimental value and the appreciation of tine tableware make this choice simple. However, you may want to identify each item and assess its value for you own information

1) Have it appraised. A jeweler or antique appraiser will have the resources and knowledge to identify and value your collection. However, a formal appraisal may be costly.

2) Researching vintage, or antique can be time consuming and difficult. But if you enjoy research here are a few tips:

  • Look for the maker's mark on the back of the utensil. In addition to the word "sterling" or the number "925" you may see the name of the manufacturer. The Stieff silver pictured above (second from the left) was easily identified as a cold meat fork in the famous Rose pattern. The pattern changed slightly over the years. That may help lean when it was made.
  • Casual information may help as well. Do you recall the silver being used in your grandmother's house? If so, when? Did she ever claim that the silver once belonged to her own mother? These are clues that can quickly help date an item.
  • Online sites like Replacements and Kovel's display a vast collection of sterling silver. You can check these sites and locate your piece by finding the names of the manufacturer. These sites offer photographs that can be enlarged to view details. Replacement value can be learned there as well.
  • If you check auction sites like ebay when looking for prices, check the sold price not the suggested price.

Silver tranish

Silver tarnish is a chemical reaction creates black marks on silver. It is easily removed with a commercial silver polish. The best way to avoid tarnish is to used your silver every day!

Tarnish can be helpful if you are hunting through a pile of flatware at a rummage sale. Items that look awful will probably be silver.

Below are some pictures of a silverplate sugar bowl before and after polishing. It took about 5 minutes, if that long.

Some silverplate may appear to be tarnished when actually the dark gray is the base metal - the thin silver plate is worn off!

See the greenish spots? That's vertigris which means the underlaying metal is copper.
See the greenish spots? That's vertigris which means the underlaying metal is copper. | Source

For Further Reading

English Silver Hallmarks Dealer Guides by Judith Banister

Jackson's Hallmarks: English, Scottish, and Irish Silver and Gold Marks From 1300 to Present Day by Ian Pickford

Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers by Dorothy Rainwater

Kovel's American Silver Marks by Ralph Kovel and Terry Kovel

The Book of Old Silver: English, American, Foreign by Seymour B. Wyler

America Sterling Silver Flatware 1830s - 1990s: A Collector's Identification and Value Guide by Maryanne Dolan

Silverware of the 20th Century The Top 250 Patterns by Harry L. Rinker

Silver Plated Flatware An Identification and Value Guide 4th Revised Edition by Tere Hagan

Remember that older values may not reflect current values. These books can help you learn about silver and silver plate and how to identify the patterns and hallmarks on your flatware and tableware.

Questions & Answers

  • I was given a silverware service set for four as a wedding gift in 1947. Two pieces are missing. The set is in a wood-grained, velvet-lined box. What do you think it's worth?

    Look at the underside of one of the pieces to see who made it and if it is sterling. Sterling is much more valuable than silver plate. I have identified some old silver by describing searching on Google images. Some patterns are in more demand than others, so it is impossible for me to tell you how much your silver is worth.

    You can research your silver in this book:

    "Silver: A Practical Guide to Collecting Silverware and Identifying Hallmarks" by Joel Langford

    If your pieces are plated:

    "Silverplated Flatware: An Identification and Value Guide, 4th Revised Edition" by Tere Hagan. This will help more with identification, but as it was printed in 2008, it will not reflect current values.

    Once you identify your flatware, you can search values at Kovels, Replacements, or Worthpoint online.

  • I have a Joel F Hewes plate of 6 7/8" dia and 10 troy oz. Does it have any value other than as melt?

    Joel F. Hewes created beautiful silver in the Arts and Crafts style. Melting down such a piece may seem offensive to many who appreciate old silver. Check online auction and sales sites to view values. There is a lot of interest in Hewe's creation. With silver going for a bit over $16.00 an ounce, I would not seek meltdown value over its value an individual piece.

    If you really want to sell it for meltdown, you may want to wait until silver prices are higher.

  • I found a spoon with EPNS A1 CARIS BROS and an anchor mark plus made in England. There's no other marks or dates on it. How old would it be?

    You can research the hallmarks on your spoon by checking out some books like:

    ""English Silver Hallmarks Dealers Guides" by Judith Banister

    "Guide to Marks of Origin on British and Irish Silver Plate From Mid 16th Century to 1963..." by Frederick Bradbury

    There are so many silver products that this may take some time. The first book includes information on how to read and understand hallmarks as well as years of production. It also includes how to spot forgeries. The second book is dedicated to silver plated items.

  • I found what looks like a dessert fork, but it is tarnished. On the end of the handle, it has a stamp that says "Holiday Inn." Do you know the approximate time this was used and is there any historical value?

    Clean the fork with silver polish to remove tarnish. If it is silver, it is probably silver plate. The silver plate may have worn off. Old hotel silverware can be quite collectible and of course, some is worth more than others. Flatware from an old or significant hotel would be more valuable than that from an inexpensive chain. Holiday Inns were established in 1952 and the first one opened in 1953. Kemmon Wilson wanted to offer travelers comfortable and affordable accommodations. So it is not exactly old and there were plenty of them.

    Old hotel silverware can be quite inexpensive and fun to collect.

  • From I can get an idea for the value of vintage Gorham Fairfax flatwear for 12, but I can’t find the more decorative Fairfax #4B dinner set for 12, circa 1910. How do the two fairfax pattern values compare?

    As I am not a valuation service, I can only point you in the right direction. Replacements tells you the retail value of a piece. That is what one would expect to pay for the item at a store. It does not promise that you would make that amount from a sale. Your interest in the value of your silver depends on why you want the value.

    If you want to have the silver valued for insurance purposes, say, in case your home is robbed, you will want to find the replacement value. The same goes for valuing items in the case of a will,or for tax purposes. In that case you should find an appraiser in your area. An appraisal is a legal document that can be used for estate values or insurance. Find an appraiser by checking out the American Society of Appraisers, or contact your insurance broker or the estate manager at your bank for information on qualified appraisers in your area. Make sure that the professional has expertise in silverware.

    If you are merely curious, you want to find an estimate of the value to sell privately or online, you can have an evaluation done of your items. There are online sites that will do this for a small fee. Of course the person who is doing this online can not feel or get the best look at your silver as they rely on photographs. These evaluators do not spend the amount of time that a certified appraiser will on your silver.

    Some auction houses offer valuations for a small fee or for free. They are looking for items to sell. They can suggest what you can reasonably expect to earn from an auction sale. As auction houses often sell to dealers, and take a percentage of the final sale, the stated value will not be as high as the one from a professional appraiser. Some museums offer appraisal days as well. They may offer it for free or at a low cost.

    You may also want to check out the Association of Small Collectors of Antique Silver for more information.

© 2017 Dolores Monet


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    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      2 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Letters on the back of a spoon may have several meanings, depending on the shape of the letters or whether they are enclosed in, say, a rectangle. For instance, the RR can refer to a variety of British manufacturers.. Your best bet is to check out an online database for silver hallmarks to find the image that looks like the marks on the back of your spoon. You can also find a book with that information.

    • profile image


      2 months ago


      I have 2 spoon with RR And SN or NS Mark on it.

      Can you tell me what it is.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      7 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Regina - your best bet is to find a copy of "Miller's Pocket Fact File: Silver and Sheffield Plate Marks Including a Guide to Makers and Marks" by John Bly. You can't add photos in the comments section. There is also an older book you may find used online "The Book of Sheffield Plate" by Seymour Wyler.

    • profile image

      Regina McDonald 

      7 months ago

      Hi. My question is not about table ware but a very old Sheffield silver plate cruet set that was given to me.

      The glass is pink, I believe cranberry glass. It has four pieces - salt and pepper shakers, vinegar/dressing container and what I think must be a mustard container with a glass spoon. The vinegar and mustard containers are lightly frosted at the top. The holder has a beautiful design of what appears to be english or dutch folks dancing and such. The bottom is signed Sheffield along with a few marks I cant make out.

      I have photos but am brand new here and need to figure out how to attach them.

      Any input is appreciated. In the mean time I'll try adding photos.

      Thank you.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      11 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Alma - if you are not sure of the mark and what it means, you can take it to a jeweler. Usually, sterling silver is marked "sterling," "925," or features a lion.

    • profile image

      Alma cuevas 

      11 months ago

      I have a item the looks like silver on botton says quality siver is the real silver

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      17 months ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Tony - you can check on the backs of the items for information, then look it up! It is not too hard but can be time consuming. You already know approximate dates, so that will be a help. A lot of people are into restaurant ware so information should be available online.

      If you want to consult a book, try "Restaurant China: Identification and Value Guide for Restaurant, Airline and Railroad Dinnerware" by Barbara Conroy.

    • profile image


      18 months ago

      Hi Delores. I work for a restaurant supply ware house that has inventory of china, glassware and flatware dating back to the 50 and 60's. Could i send you some pictures to get your thoughts on them?

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      2 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Peggy - yes, the value of silver, like anything else, goes up and down. I see jewelry made from old silver and it seems a shame to cut up or destroy such beautiful work.

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 

      2 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Your silver is lovely. Thanks for enlightening us as to standard verses troy ounces when it comes to valuing silver pieces. I guess that matters most if thinking about melting it down for the money.

      We have gone to a few shows where one of the people on Antiques Roadshow appears. He lives in Houston and has several stores. According to him values have fallen over the years with regard to ornate silver patterns as well as sets of china. People still entertain but more casually these days.

      It is disheartening to know that some foreign countries are marking items as sterling when they are not. As the old saying goes..."buyer beware!"

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      2 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Jan, why don't you just take your ring to a jeweler who specializes in old jewelry.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      3 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Ms Dora - I love the old silverplate. It's so pretty and inexpensive.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      3 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi Nell - most of the pieces I checked out were relatively inexpensive. Of course inexpensive is a relative term, haha. But as I said in the article, it's those more unusual pieces that hold value. I have so little, most of the pictures on here are of things that belong to a friend.

    • Dolores Monet profile imageAUTHOR

      Dolores Monet 

      3 years ago from East Coast, United States

      Hi purl3agony - I have one of those old spoon rings rolling around somewhere. These days I kinda hate that stuff. I love the old silver and it just seems wrong to hack it up.

    • MsDora profile image

      Dora Weithers 

      3 years ago from The Caribbean

      Thanks for the lesson in silver-plated versus sterling silver. It is good knowledge to have. Will pay attention if ever at a garage sale.

    • Nell Rose profile image

      Nell Rose 

      3 years ago from England

      Hi, we collect silver tableware. We used to have loads but it comes in really handy when times are short and we need a cash input! lol! really interesting!

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 

      3 years ago from USA

      Wonderful hub, Dolores! My mom inherited my Great Aunt's collection of silverware. The set includes some beautiful and unusual utensils that I had never seen before, like fancy cake servers and grapefruit spoons! We've never used most of these items. I know people use the pretty handles and bend them into rings and bracelets, but I wish there was a creative way to use this silverware without cutting each piece apart.

    • FlourishAnyway profile image


      3 years ago from USA

      My mother-in-law was the keeper of the family silver because her brother was a priest, sister was a nun and other brother was a confirmed bachelor. She had three sets of silverware and fortunately we infuriated one set when she passed. You provide useful advice on what to do.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      3 years ago from Olympia, WA

      Just stopped by to say hello and wish you a superb 2017. I would comment but my knowledge of sterling silver is close to zero. :)


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