The beauty of silver has attracted collectors for many years. Collecting silver became particularly popular in the 19th century and this popularity continues to the present day. Chester has been the location of choice for a number of silversmiths over the years. Plate was assayed at Chester from the early 15th century. Hallmarks were regulated from about the end of the 17th century but there are some pitfalls and points to remember when buying silver. The Chester Assay office was re-established in 1701 and closed in 1961. Prior to the establishment of the Birmingham Assay Office in 1773, most of the plate produced in the Midlands and the north west of England was "touched" at Chester.
The Chester Assay Office
Silver is one of Chester's greatest contributions to the visual arts in Britain, and the Grosvenor Museum houses a national important collection. The gallery displays 400 years of Chester hallmarked silver, together with Chester race trophies, Cheshire church plate and secular silver, and silver from the Marquess of Ormonde's collection.
Two candlesticks from a set of four made during the time when there was no assay office in Birmingham. Boulton and Fothergill had to send all their silver to Chester, 72 miles away, to be assayed. The design is said to have been inspired by Boulton's travels in France in 1765 and quickly became very desirable. The other 2 candlesticks are in Soho House, Birmingham.
Silver hallmarks are an invaluable aid to collectors and dealers for identifying the date & maker of antique silver, and indeed any piece of silver made in England.
Hallmarks on silver were first introduced in the UK in 1300 as a method of proving that the silver object contained the correct amount of silver. Pure silver is a very soft metal and consequently any object made from silver requires some base metal to be added to it to strengthen it. In the early days it was not uncommon for silver objects to be melted down and converted into coinage, and so it was imperative that the silver used was of a sufficient grade, especially with continental silver containing a much lower percentage of silver. Silver Hallmarks were the answer to this problem. Any piece of silver had to be officially approved to be of a high enough silver content, and would be given it's hallmark only when this was the case. As a consequence the hallmark became a standard of quality and assurance, and the presence of a hallmark on a silver object was an official seal of approval.
A typical set of British silver hallmarks includes the Standard Mark, the City Mark, the Date Letter, possibly a duty mark (see below) Duty Mark, and a Maker's Mark.
This is the standard English lion passant gardant silver standard mark that you will find on almost all English silver. The only other mark that you might find is that of the Britannia Standard, introduced in 1697 & removed in 1720, which denoted a silver content of 95.84% silver. The Chester assay office produced plate from the 15th Century but was not regulated until the 17th Century. The mark was as shown from 1686 - 1701 when it was replaced with a similar shield, half with wheatsheafs, the other half with 3 lions passant. The 3 wheatsheafs were reintroduced from 1779 until the office shut in 1961. Duty marks were added in 1784 as a tax to pay for the war with America. The tax lasted until 1890!
This is the standard English lion passant gardant silver standard mark that you will find on almost all English silver. The only other mark that you might find is that of the Britannia Standard, introduced in 1697 & removed in 1720, which denoted a silver content of 95.84% silver.
The Chester assay office produced plate from the 15th Century but was not regulated until the 17th Century. The mark was as shown from 1686 - 1701 when it was replaced with a similar shield, half with wheatsheafs, the other half with 3 lions passant. The 3 wheatsheafs were reintroduced from 1779 until the office shut in 1961.
Duty marks were added in 1784 as a tax to pay for the war with America. The tax lasted until 1890!
English silver, or Sterling silver is often referred to as solid silver, but it does in fact contain 7.5% copper, so it is 92.5% pure, which is why modern silver often has a .925 mark stamped into it. Continental silver is often only 80% pure.
English Silver Hallmarks evolved over time, with the eventual inclusion of the standard or sterling mark, the assay office, the year of manufacture, the maker, and sometimes an additional mark for special reasons. All of these silver hallmarks can help in identifying exactly when and by who any piece was made, which is not only helpful to collectors of antique silver, but also offers a fascinating dimension to any old silver object that you may possess.
- The history of silver smithing goes back to about 4000BC.
- The two main ways of working silver are by either pouring molten silver into a mold or by hammering a silver sheet over anvils to raise it up into the finished product.
- Hallmarks were introduced in England in 1300, initially just to stop fraud. The first hallmark was a lion's head, called leopart in French which became the leopard's head, familiar to us today.
- A date letter on the hallmark was introduced in 1478.
- All separate parts of an article should be hallmarked, e.g. a jug with a lid will have both marked.
- If a piece of silver is altered, it should have fresh hallmarks.
- Because it is a very soft metal and difficult to work in its pure form, it is usually mixed with another like copper. In the UK, Sterling silver is the standard and that must be 92.5% pure silver; the standard varies from country to country.
- With changes in fashion, many types of silverware have become outmoded. They are then altered so making them more saleable. For example, Georgian drinking mugs have the bodies re-hammered into milk jugs. If you are suspicious, check the thickness of the silver: it should be even throughout the body with no thin spots.
- 18th century soup dishes are no longer particularly desirable so some have been converted into dinner plates. Look for creasing between the plate border and the centre. The hallmark may also be distorted, either stretched or compressed.
- Look out for 'duty dodgers'. These are pieces of silver made between 1719 and 1758 when duty on silver was high. During that period, to avoid paying the duty, silversmiths would insert a piece of silver already hallmarked from an earlier redundant object. At that time hallmarks on articles like coffee pots and teapots were put on the base in a group. If you see an object like this from this period with the hallmarks in a straight line on the base, be cautious.
- Tankards with lids were made into coffee pots. The body would be re-hammered to make it taller and a spout would be added. The handle would also be changed from silver to wood because a metal handle is not practical for a vessel used for hot liquids. Look at the proportions of a coffee jug: does it look too short for the width of the base? If it does, it could have started life as a tankard.
- Lidded tankards were also made into jugs. A short spout is hammered out or added to the tankard and often the plain original object has ornate decoration added.
- If you want to start collecting early Apostle spoons, be very careful. There are a number of excellent fakes on sale. The only realistic way to detect them is to be very experienced and have an excellent eye for the real thing. Easier fakes to spot are the ones converted from 18th century tablespoons because the hallmarks are often wrong and the modelling of the Apostle is poor.
- To start collecting silver, like all other forms of collecting, it is a good idea to look at many authentic pieces so that you can recognise and have a 'feel' for the genuine article. If you know what they look like alarm bells should ring when something is not right, even if you cannot put your finger on what is wrong with a piece. The other good advice is always buy from a reputable dealer who guarantees authenticity.
This section lists the silver hallmarks used by some of the main Chester Silversmiths.