(Warning: This article is long and reading it may improve your ability to make money on eBay)
In Article One I discussed the opportunities for savvy eBay sellers in the growing investor market for antique and collectible silver. The many types of marks on these goods can be confusing, however, often resulting in poorly described listings. One can be assured that at least 30% of the 12-15,000 weekly listings in the ‘Antiques-Sterling’ category will have inaccurate or misleading descriptions. The resulting buyer confusion and uncertainty causes poor selling prices, lost sales and seller credibility issues.
In this article eBayers will learn how to identify and understand the many different marks and where to research them. With this background sellers can write professional descriptions in their eBay auctions, eBay stores and other selling venues. Properly identifying and listing silver items gives sellers credibility and an edge over the hundreds of uninformed sellers in this competitive market.
Think of it this way – if one were going to get into the car selling business he or she should know as much as possible about makes, models, engines, performance, etc. Right? The same thing applies to selling silver goods. The marks tell the story behind the piece i.e., the maker, age, origin, history, quality, pattern, etc. Understanding marks will increase the sellers’ ROI because they become better buyers as well as resellers.
Identifying and Deciphering Silver Marks – The list below provides the basics for learning the many marks and and metal types. For further research and education there are many excellent reference books available for both beginners and experts. I’ve provided a short list of suggested books at the end of the article. Understand that many reference books are narrow in their scope i.e., specific to certain time periods, countries, etc. For this reason one should purchase only one or two books which cover a wide array of marks from many makers and countries. As experience is gained by listing and selling silver one can build a good reference library. For online research there are several excellent websites that are contributed to and used by collectors and dealers worldwide. I’ve linked one of the best sites at the bottom of the article. Professional valuations and appraisals are also available for those who want a quality listing but don’t want to research marks.
Those who are just starting into silver sales need to be very careful not to misinterpret marks. As stated above, one-third of the eBay sellers incorrectly list and describe items because they’ve learned just enough information about marks to be dangerous. Often these erroneous sellers think because there is a lion, crown, or anchor mark on their item it is English sterling when, in fact, it is silverplate bearing a pseudo mark. Just today I saw a new seller’s auction of a creamer and sugar bowl set that she listed as English sterling made in 1903. In reality it was American silverplate circa 1877-1880. She thought the pattern number, 1903, was the date it was made and that the lion in the trademark meant English sterling. This is just one example of many that make sellers look bad and limit their chances for a profitable sale.
Use Knowledge As A Selling Point – After properly researching the marks on the merchandise one can accurately title and describe the listings. Items can be guaranteed to be as claimed because the seller has enough confidence to do so. This gives credibility to the seller and the merchandise which will draw smart investors and collectors to the auction. The result will be strong bidding action and higher sale prices.
Use Accurately Identified Marks for Search Optimization – For example, a seller identifies a piece as Danish and made by Georg Jensen circa 1909-1914. When used to keyword the auction title and description this information will be a magnet for high-end collectors . This translates into bigger profits. Which of these two titles works best? “Antique Silver Bowl with Hallmarks” or,“Beautiful Georg Jensen Art Nouveau Sterling Centerpiece c.1909-1914”. The second one of course. This is simply using strategic keywords in the title which gives life to the listing.
Okay, so what’s to learn? There’s plenty. The following is just the short list, but with this foundation a seller can build their road to success as an expert silver dealer on eBay and other venues.
Things You Must Know:
- Hallmarks – Just about every eBay seller misunderstands this. Specific to precious metals, a hallmark is defined as a mark or series of marks struck into the metal that officially authenticates the metal purity (fineness or content) and which is internationally recognized as a guarantee of purity. eBay sellers frequently confuse hallmarks with maker’s marks, logos, company trademarks, and simple number marks such as 925 or 835. While such number marks are used to indicate purity or content they are never to be considered as hallmarks unless they are accompanied by the official standard mark of the country of origin. Why? Because anyone can fraudulently strike these numbers into the metal without official assay. Hallmarks are the official marks of guaranteed metal purity in precious metal items. Trademarks and maker’s marks are simply the mark of the manufacturer of the item. Think of it like the karat marks on gold jewelry. If a ring says Cartier 18K, the hallmark is the 18K, not the maker’s name, Cartier. It guarantees the ring has a gold purity of 75% and it is recognized worldwide. Silver hallmarks work the same way, there’s just a lot more of them than there are for gold.
- Country Marks – Almost every country requires official nationalized marks or symbols to be used as the hallmarks for their precious metals standards. Probably the best known of all is the Lion Passant used by England to guarantee sterling since the 14th century. There are far too many country marks to list here but you can research them in the online reference sites listed at the end of this article.
- City Marks – A mark or symbol used in many countries to denote the city where the item was made. The leopard head representing London and the anchor representing Birmingham are two of the best known and most commonly seen on eBay. Again there’s too many to list but they can be researched in the reference guides listed below.
- Maker’s Marks – These are the registered names, initials, trademarks, logos, brands, symbols, or other marks used over several centuries by silversmiths and manufacturing companies to identify their wares. There are literally hundreds of these worldwide. You will usually find these struck or imprinted onto an inconspicuous place on the item along with the hallmark and other marks.
- Date Marks – Also called Date Codes, these are unique symbols, characters, letters, or numbers used by some well known manufacturers as a means of dating the production year of their merchandise. These are cataloged and are very useful in accurately dating many items. Unfortunately many companies didn’t use date marks which makes precise dating of their work impossible.
- Pseudo Marks – These marks were created by silversmiths to mimic the well known and long established British sterling hallmarks. These smiths typically made silverplate items and silver items of lesser purity than sterling. The marks were intentionally designed to give a perception of sterling quality about their work in order to profit on the reputation and renown of British sterling. This does not necessarily mean they were all practicing fakery, though some certainly were. In fact, many pseudo marks are legitimately registered trademarks of reputable firms which manufacture in sterling, coin and silverplate. For example Gorham, a highly respected American sterling and silverplate maker, incorporated the Birmingham anchor mark into their maker’s mark. Much of the 19th century Chinese export silver also bears pseudo marks on some very high quality 800 and 835 standard marked goods. Pseudo marks are often mistaken for British sterling hallmarks so buyers and sellers alike must be able to recognize them. This is one of the main reasons why research is so critical to successful selling.
- Pattern Numbers – These are proprietary numbers which are often found along with the hallmarks and maker’s marks. These are used by the manufacturer for patent registration, pattern identification and inventory control.
- Sterling – Sterling is defined by the U.K., the U.S. (refer below*) and most other nations as an alloy containing at least 92.5% pure silver. The other metal in the alloy is copper which strengthens the metal for fabrication into usable and decorative wares. The word sterling comes from 14th century England. The sterling standard in Great Britain and elsewhere has been 92.5% (925) fineness since that time.
- 925, 0.925 or 925/1000 – This number is often found stamped into silver items. It represents sterling when accompanied by the official standard hallmark of the country of origin. The presence of this number on an item does not guarantee it to be sterling unless the official country hallmark is also present.
- “Solid Silver” – This is defined by the U.S. government (refer below*) as an alloy containing at least 92.5% pure silver which means it has to be sterling. It is illegal in the U.S. to represent any product by this name that is not sterling silver.
- “Coin Silver” – This alloy gets its name from 18th and 19th century American silversmiths who melted down silver coins in order to fabricate items to sell. Typical items were silverware and other table service wares. The U.S. government defines this to be an alloy of 90% (900) purity (refer below*). Many items with less than 90% purity are frequently and illegally sold as “coin silver” in the U.S. on eBay and in other venues.
- Continental Sterling – This is a misleading term used by some who sell European made items which have purity standards less than 92.5%. Similar terms used are Russian Sterling, German Sterling, French Sterling, etc. all of which are marked with official national standards that are less than 925. Continental Silver is the correct way to describe European goods provided the official hallmark and assay mark are present to authenticate the actual purity.
- Silver Standards – In the U.S. the standards are pure (.9999%), sterling and coin (refer below*). In the U.K. the standards are britannia (95.8 % purity) and sterling. Britannia was used exclusively in Britain from 1697 to 1720 and has been optional since. Other countries have their own sets of official standards. Typically, but not without exception, these are 950, 935, 925, 900, 875, 850, 835, 812, 800, 750, and 675 purities as determined by official assay. These numbers represent the decimal fraction (percentage) of silver content in the manufactured item. For example, an item marked ‘800’ is 80% pure. 950 and 935 can be legally referred to in the U.S. as sterling, regardless of the country of origin, but the lesser standards cannot. 950 is sometimes referred to as Martelé Silver. Note: In the U.S. it is a federal crime to import, sell, label, advertise, or otherwise represent any item as “sterling” or “solid silver” which does not have a purity of 92.5% or greater (refer below*).
- Loth Numbers – This was a numerical system used in Austria-Hungary and Germany-Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries for authenticating official assays. It is based on a purity of 16/16. So that 15/16 is 15 Loth equaling .937 purity, 14/16 is 14 Loth equaling .875 purity, 13/16 is 13 Loth equaling .812 purity, and so on. Most of the antique silver from these countries found listed on eBay is 13 Loth and, as noted above, it is often misrepresented as German Sterling. Austria-Hungary used this system until 1866 and Germany-Prussia until 1886.
- Zolotnik Numbers – These numbers are found on Russian silver items going back several centuries. The root of this system began in the 11th century with the Russian gold trade. A lot of antique Russian items are auctioned on eBay and other venues so it is important to know some basics. The numbers are based on 96/96 being pure. What is sold mostly on eBay is the more common 84 Zolotnik, or 84/96 which equals 875 (87.5%) purity. 88 Zolotnik is 88/96 or 916 purity and so on. A common problem with the 84 mark is mistaking certain types of French silverplate for Russian 84 Zolotnik. One way to tell the difference is the French silverplate mark will have either a ‘Gr’ or ‘G’ after the 84 which represents grams of silver used in the plating process. Also the Russian 84 Zolotnik will always be accompanied with one or more official marks and a maker’s mark in Russian Cyrillic letters. If an item is claimed to be Russian and it bears on the number 84, then consider it to be fake or plate.
- Silverplate – This is a very thin layering or coating of pure silver over a base metal. The most common base metals used are copper, brass, nickel-silver, white metal, and Britannia metal (see below). The two types of silverplate are Sheffield plate and electroplate. Sheffield derives its name from Sheffield, England where it originated. The technique used was a ‘sandwiching’ of a layer of base metal between a top and bottom layer of pure silver. The metals were wrought or rolled until the two metals were bonded. Thus the base metal was ‘plated’ and could then be used for manufacturing. Electroplating was invented in 1805 but didn’t come into popular use until 1840. This is an electrolytic process whereby molecules of silver are deposited onto the surfaces of a sheet of base metal until the desired coating or thickness is achieved. Because electroplating is quick and not labor intense almost all plating was done this way by 1860 which doomed the Sheffield plate method. Today Sheffield plate is prized by collectors due to its superior hand-wrought quality and antique value. There are several different quality grades of electroplate/silverplate. These are based on the thickness of the plating resulting from the amount of silver used. The two common types of Victorian Era silverplate are triple plate and quadruple plate. You will see a lot of these types auctioned on eBay. The key thing to know about silverplate is that it has no significant silver weight, thus there is no precious metal value associated with it. The market for silverplated items is based on rarity, uniqueness, antique qualities, craftsmanship, and design qualities only.
- Sterling Silverplate – There is no such thing! This description is often used by eBay sellers who don’t know anything about silver or who are keyword spamming to increase clicks on their listing. Because sterling is an alloy it is unsuitable to use as a silver source for plating.
- E.P.N.S. – You will see these letters marking the bottoms of many older American and British silverplated items. This stands for Electro Plated Nickel-Silver. Many novice eBay sellers and those who don’t bother to do any research mistakenly list E.P.N.S. items as sterling. Common variations on this are E.P., E.P.C. (Electro Plate on Copper), E.P.W.M. (Electro Plate on White Metal), E.P.B. or E.P.B.M. (Electro Plate on Britannia Metal). Just know that any item marked with E.P. is silverplate and as such has no precious metal value.
- Nickel-Silver – This is a common base metal alloy consisting of nickel, copper and zinc. There is no silver in it whatsoever. The name was coined because the metal is silvery in color and polishes to a shine. Other names used for the same metal are: Alpacca or Alpacca Silver; Brazil Silver; German Silver; Peru Silver; New York Silver; New Silver; Nevada Silver; Norwegian Silver; Silverite; Venetian Silver; Potosi Silver; and Sonora Silver to name just a few. Many people have been stung buying things like old German Silver ladies purses thinking they had something of real value. Nickel-silver is strong and durable but it doesn’t have any metal value.
- White Metal – This is a silvery colored alloy usually containing a mixture of antimony, tin, lead, zinc, and cadmium. In the U.K. the British fine arts trade uses the term ‘white metal’ to describe all foreign items which do not have official British Assay Office marks struck on them.
- Britannia Metal – Another non-silver base metal similar to pewter which is popular because it is durable and polishes to a silver-like luster. This is an alloy of 93% tin, 5% antimony and 2% copper. Not to be confused with 958 Britannia from Great Britain.
The hundreds of known marks and their meanings are complex and often confusing. The information you’ve received in this article should increase your understanding of what many of the marks represent. You can now build upon these basics to become an informed buyer and reseller with a substantial edge over your competition. Thanks for following this article series and please watch for Article Three: A Focus on British Sterling.
Suggested Reference Books:
- Kovels’ American Silver Marks by Ralph and Terry Kovel; Random House Reference, 1st Ed., 1989. ISBN-13: 978-0517568828
- Dealer’s Guides: English Silver Hall-Marks by Judith Banister; Foulsham Publishing, 2004. ISBN-13: 978-0572029999
- Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers by Dorothy T. Rainwater, Martin Fuller and Colette Fuller; Schiffer Publishing, 2003. ISBN-13: 978-0764318870
- American Silversmiths and Their Marks: The Definitive (1948) Edition by Stephen G. C. Ensko; Dover Publications, 1983. ISBN-13: 978-0486244280
- All About Antique Silver with International Hallmarks by Diana Sanders Cinamon; AAA Publishing; 1ST edition, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-0978516802
- Discovering Hallmarks on English Silver by John Bly; Shire Publishing, 9th Ed., 2008. ISBN-13: 978-0747804505
- English, Irish, & Scottish Silver: at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute by Beth Carver Wees; Hudson Hills Press, 1st Ed.,1997. ISBN-13: 978-1555951177
(These and other excellent reference books on this subject are available at Amazon.com and other fine booksellers.)
* U.S. Guide to Precious Metals & Jewels: Laws & Standards (See paragraph 23.6)