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Antique silver and antique silver plate – what’s the difference?


People start out on a journey of collecting for many reasons – perhaps they have inherited a piece that piques their interest to collect more, or they find it enjoyable to spend weekends browsing antique shops to grow their collection. With silver, of course, there is also the added investment consideration. If you are a beginner collector, how do you know if something is silver plated or solid silver?

What is silver?

Silver is a precious, valuable metal – argentum in Latin – with an intrinsic value, that has been mined in earnest since the Middle Ages. Silver is naturally brittle and requires the addition of another metal to make it workable. Sterling silver is an alloy made up of 92.5 parts per hundred of solid silver with 7.5 parts of nickel or copper. Since the 14th century, silver items have had to meet a sterling silver standard and be assayed and hallmarked

Is silver plated the same as silver?

In 1742, a Sheffield cutler invented silver plate when he spilled molten silver which then fused onto the copper handle of a knife. Referred to as Old Sheffield Plate, this new metal made silver items accessible to the masses. Silver plated items are made from a base metal, often brass, which has had a thin layer of silver applied to them, thus where sterling silver has a melting value, silver plate does not.

How to tell if something is silver plated or solid silver

Sterling silver items can be identified by the presence of a hallmark, a series of stamped symbols or marks. These typically include a silver standard mark showing the silver content of the piece, a town mark for the relevant assay office, a date letter, duty mark and sometimes a maker’s mark.

Although silver plated items do not bear a hallmark, early items that date from 1742 to 1840 can often be identified as only one side of the item was usually plated. Thus, the underside of a silver plated tray will be the base metal in its original state. Later pieces however were fused on both sides. Look for the edges of an item too, where the silver plate may have been folded or rolled to form a silver rim. The presence of silver wire borders to cover the copper base metal is also a telltale sign of silver plate.

By 1840, the process of electroplating had been invented which is “The process of coating the surface of a conducting material with a metal. During the process, the surface to be covered acts as a cathode in an electrolytic cell, and the metal that is to cover it acts as an anode”. Electroplating involves a very thin layer of silver and items are often stamped EPNS (electroplated nickel silver) or EPBM (electroplated Britannia metal). Electroplating can wear away over time to reveal the base metal beneath and electroplated items will also tarnish differently to Old Sheffield Plate. This is because electroplating uses pure silver compared to the sterling silver of fused plate, which is whiter and has a different patina.

Is silver plate worth anything?

Silver plate cannot be melted down and re-sold as sterling silver can, which makes it less valuable than sterling silver. However, there is value in silver plated items which comes less from the value of the silver content than the age, maker and quality of the item. With two similar items of comparable design, size and age, the sterling silver item will be more valuable, based on its silver content compared to that of a plated item.

Where to buy antique silver and antique silver plate

All collectors, especially new collectors, should start with pieces that they like, regardless of age, and should choose the best they can afford from a trustworthy source. Buying from reputable antiques centres like Hemswell gives you the choice of items from hundreds of dealers under one roof. Our antique silver experts are specialists in their field, with many belonging to renowned industry associations such as LAPADA (the association of art and antiques dealers). Accreditation by such an association gives collectors peace of mind that the dealer adheres to recognised standards for stock quality, expertise and integrity.

We have hundreds of antique silver and antique silver plate items for sale that are available to view and purchase online and which can be securely posted out. For those able to visit us in person, our opening hours can be found here.

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