Recognizing Authentic Antique Sterling Silver
By Grant Copland
Believe it or not, recognizing whether or not sterling silver items are antique and authentic is rather easy. Strange, but true.
By turning over all of the candle sticks, engraved spoons, butter dishes, serving trays, and so on and so forth that you inspect, you can look for sterling silver's tell-tale quality markings. These markings are called “hallmarks”, and they are engravings on pieces of antique sterling silver which can connect the piece's past to the current owner.
Hallmarks, it seems, were inventions of the 14th century in Europe and were designed to prevent fraud by goldsmiths. England's Goldsmith Hall would analyze a piece of sterling silver to see about the legitimacy of its content and then, if approved, it would receive the Hall's mark—and hence, the “hallmark”.
Hallmarks are to be found in a wide array of varieties on pieces of antique sterling silver. One of these is the sterling silver standard mark of England. This mark is put on their by the piece's maker. It consists of the year of the making of the piece, the silversmith's initials, and can also have the emblem of the office where the piece of sterling silver was analyzed and then stamped.
Due to this wide array of symbols and hallmarks, you will want to get hold of an antiques guide book in order to more thoroughly analyze certain marks, but overall if you see the hallmark on the bottom of a piece then you can be confident that it is authentic antique sterling silver.
The thing that you might see on the bottom of the piece you're considering that will spell bad news is the set of initials EPNS—this stands for electro-plated-nickel silver. What this means is that the item you're holding is merely made from base metal and then has had a thin layer of silver coated over it to make it appear a lot more valuable than it actually is. These pieces are very tricky. The outer silver coating behaves just like sterling silver, reacts to things the same way as sterling silver, tarnishes the same as sterling silver—and yet, is not authentic sterling silver. Therefore, these objects have nothing of true value or consequence to offer the antiques collector.
Other things you can look for, too. For one thing, most three-pronged forks will be made before 1770. This was the year that four-pronged forks become the standard. Evidence of hand-hammering on a piece will indicate that it was made before the Industrial Revolution. Usually, the heavier the piece of antique sterling silver the more valuable, but look carefully that it has not been weighted down from within to give the false appearance of being worth more than it is.

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