What Is Coin Silver Flatware and Is It Worth Anything Today?

As the oldest of silverware, here's what to know about maker's marks, its history, and its monetary value.

silver flatware table setting

Have you ever noticed a silver spoon priced at a few dollars at a flea market and wondered how, if it's silver, can it be so affordable? Or maybe you've held an elegant silver ladle and marveled at its lightness? Chances are, you've encountered an example of coin silver. Inexpensive and lovely, American coin silver is still one of the sleepy areas in antique collecting. Some research, some hunting, and a little luck can yield wonderful remnants of this distinctively American tradition. Salli LaGrone, a stylist in Franklin, Tennessee, began collecting coin silver years ago. At first, she was drawn to the rich old patina of the spoons themselves. Soon, she was familiarizing herself with the work of individual silversmiths and in no time at all she had moved up from cutlery to hollowware and was adding cups, napkin rings, pitchers, and creamers to her collection. "I have tried to find the unique something in each piece I buy, whether it's the pattern or in the design," says LaGrone. "Each silversmith is different. It becomes a game to try to identify their work."

In fact, it's easier to find coin silver than to explain it. That's because the term refers to several interrelated things; understanding the nuances that distinguish them from one another requires a tour through American fiduciary history.

The History of Coin Silver

In the late 18th century, when paper banknotes were unstable and coins were easily stolen, well-to-do families would have their silver money melted down and fashioned into "plate"—dishes, spoons, and other objects for use and display. Not only was the silver more beautiful in this form, but when it was stamped with a maker's mark and distinctive in design, it was more easily traced in case of theft. And, of course, it could always be reconverted into bullion. "Some dealers will use the term 'coin silver' to refer to early and nineteenth-century American silver that is not marked 'sterling,'" says D. Albert Soeffing, president of the New York Silver Society. "That is its most generous sense. The correct definition is more specifically silver of the standard set by the U.S. Mint for coinage."

The standard indicates what percentage of silver was used to make the coin. Pure silver, which is very soft, must be alloyed with another metal, usually copper. The sterling standard, set in England in the 12th century, required that a piece labeled sterling contain 92.5 percent silver. The percentage of silver in coins in America wasn't standardized until after the American Revolution, when the Mint was established. From 1792 to 1837, the standard was 89.2 percent and, subsequently, 90 percent, until America adopted the sterling standard in 1868.

Today, most coin silver on the market is around 90 percent silver, and yet it suffers from the perception that it's much inferior to sterling silver. "People think coin silver is low in silver, which is not true," says Jeanne Sloane, a vice president and silver specialist at Christie's, the New York auction house. "It's as pure as the country's coinage was." Many of the exquisite examples of American silver in museum collections are coin silver, and only experts can distinguish them from sterling if they're not marked. But for collectors, coin silver offers a bonus. "Coin silver is often inexpensive compared to sterling," says Sloane. "A coin-silver tea service may sell in the thousands of dollars, while sterling counterparts might sell for tens of thousands. Sterling has more cachet."

She attributes the disparity to taste. Much coin silver was made to be used by the middle class, and a lot of it is very plain in style. In the 17th and early 18th centuries, only as mall percentage of the population owned any silver in quantity—a single treasured spoon might be a family's entire silver hoard. Silver became more widely available in the nineteenth century, and silversmiths no longer had to rely on melting down coins to make objects but could purchase sheets of the metal. The great majority of coin silver available today dates from 1800 through about 1870, a period that begins with the graceful simplicity of the Federal style and ends with the ornate embellishments of the Victorian era.

Where to Find It

Part of the fun of collecting coin silver is that so much of it is available. Flea markets, tag sales, consignment shops, and mom-and-pop dealers are all likely sources. While sets of silver do exist, many enthusiasts prefer buying piecemeal. The thrill is in digging through old spoons and finding one with fine hand engraving or spotting a prized ewer beneath the tarnish.

As a rule, the heavier an object, the more highly it is valued. Many spoons at flea markets are thin and bend easily—they are made of the same grade of silver, just less of it. Color is also a factor: a piece with a lower percentage of silver may have a brassy tone, a better piece a richer, more grayish hue. Certain forms are more common than others. "Spoons are a dime a dozen, forks are rare, and knives are really rare," says Ronald Klinger of Leather Bucket, an antique shop in Philadelphia.

Determining the Value

The more elaborate the piece, the rarer it will be. A plain cake basket dating from the 1820s might sell for $2,500, while a heavily ornamented example with cornucopia handles might fetch $20,000. A tea service in good shape might range from $1,800 for three pieces to $4,000 for five pieces, depending on condition, design, and marks. Expect to pay between $8 and $10 for an ordinary tablespoon and between $35 and $40 for one with an interesting pattern and clear maker's mark. In general, early pieces tend to be more valuable than later ones.

Sometimes, coin silver is inadvertently sold as silver plate at considerably less than its value. "Dealers can't know everything," says Vincent Manzo, a collector and dealer in New York who purchased an 1830s coffee and tea service for a modest sum and later identified it as the work of William Gale, a silversmith whose coin silver was sold at Tiffany & Co. Of course, every collector fantasizes about discovering a forgotten masterpiece.

Learning to read the marks on a piece of silver can tell you who made it and where. "In most cases, without a name on it, an object is just not worth as much," says Constantine Kollitus, a New York City antique dealer. But unlike Britain, the United States had no formal marking or assay system for the first fifty or so years of its history, except in Baltimore between 1814 and 1830. Early American silversmiths stamped their wares with their initials, their first initial and last name, or with a maker's mark. The coin period coincides with the era of pseudo-hallmarks, which were meant to resemble English markings. Typical pseudo hallmarks may contain an eagle, a star, or ahead. Check a good reference book such as Marks of American Silversmiths ($40, amazon.com) by Robert A. Green or Ralph and Terry Kovel's American Silver Marks ($67.32, amazon.com). The words "coin," "pure coin," "dollar," or "standard" stamped on the back of a piece appeared in the early nineteenth century and indicate the object was made with silver of the same purity as the coins of the day, though by this time not necessarily from them. "The field of coin silver is fun but frustrating," says Kollitus. "As with any antique, you must buy what you like, not what someone tells you to."

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