On your marks…

How to spot if that piece of silver long forgotten at the back of the cupboard is fortune of fake

Imagine if that silver dish you packed off to the charity shop last weekend was a valuable Elkington & Co piece from the late 1800s, or the cumbersome vase handed down from your great uncle was a Warwick vase! How would you tell it apart from a common piece of stainless steel from Ikea? The secret lies in checking the hallmarks which should give an idea to its age, authenticity and value. Traditionally most English silver has four marks – a maker mark, a date mark, a standard mark and an assay mark. A maker’s mark is that of the company or person responsible for sending an item to be hallmarked, which has to be registered with an assay office. The symbol for the Birmingham Assay office is an anchor. The date mark is one which is different year-on-year and depending on the assay office, but generally follows an alphabetical sequence and is enclosed with a shield. Interestingly, the date mark stopped being compulsory in 1999.


A standard mark conveys the fineness of the metal content – sterling is the British term for silver which is 92.5 per cent pure, which is signified by a lion passant or 925. In 1696, a Britannia standard mark was brought in to distinguish a higher fineness of silver and to deter silversmiths from melting down silver coins in times of shortage. One interesting mark is the Utility Mark, shaped like a 0 without joining at the top and bottom this was implemented by the Government during World War II. It was found on 9ct gold wedding bands, the only choice for brides during the period of rationing. One way to tell whether your piece of silver is especially collectable is by looking at the duty mark. Between 1784 and 1890 the reigning sovereign’s head was applied to indicate that duty had been paid on the item to the Crown and some silver pieces have a duty mark stamped twice. If you encounter a piece which has no assay mark, this could be due to the silversmith transposing an assay mark from a smaller item, like a spoon, and soldering it onto a larger item. Any joins would then be plated over, however it is possible to see these by breathing onto the area, or checking whether the style and date marks match. These fake marks were historically done to make unwanted items appear more useful or fashionable.

For more information about silver and details of the next auction contact Fellows Auctions www.fellows.co.uk