Silverplate-What’s It Worth?

Just about every time I tour a home with a family member before an estate sale, I ways get shown Grandmothers valuable set of silverplated flatware and tea service. However the sad truth I must tell to many of these eager family members is that even as a complete set, the pieces are worth very little. This got me thinking: If silverplate is not very valuable why has it been cherished so much by people in the past 100 years? And since it is a metal, isn’t it worth something?

Silverplate has existed for nearly 300 years. The original demand for the pieces came with its increasing similarities to Sterling Silver, which has always carried a much higher price. Prior to silverplate being invented by Thomas Boulsover in 1742. Nickel Silver which is an alloy of nickel and copper mixed to give the metal a silver-like appearance was used first in China as a Sterling Silver imitation. Boulsover invented the “Old Sheffield” plating method, which involved a process similar to gold/silver filled jewelry producing, by placing copper between two thin sheets of silver and heating it. Later on around 1840, the process of electroplating came about. Electroplating allowed using solution and electrical current to draw the silver electron particles to the base metal, leaving a very thin silver surface that could protect the base metal from wear and corrosion. However in the Victorian Era, makers felt that this industrial method could be used to produce silver look-a-like cheaply, and they could be sold at a cost similar to actual Sterling Silver. This desire for sterling-like products at affordable costs would further drive the demand for Silverplate.

By 1900, Silverplate dominated the market as the number one sold metal cutlery product for use in the home. Silverplate was often a great alternative for everyday use for affluent families or for regular dining use in large hotels and restaurants. Silverplate had the look, feel, and characteristics of Sterling without the high costs involved. Silverplate was also more durable than Sterling Silver, which has the tendency to bend under heat and use. Silverplate also does tarnish too, just as fast as Sterling Silver. As the depression began in the 1930s and later World War II in the 1940s, the costs of silver made it difficult to afford Sterling Silver pieces for flatware and jewelry. Silverplate became more popular as gifts to give loved ones for weddings, anniversaries, and other important events. However, as the 1950s approached with chrome adorned stainless steel. People tended to drift anyway from the everyday use of silverplated flatware and holloware, and move towards a product that was just as durable and that required no polishing to remove tarnish. Automatic Dishwashers in the home also ruined many sets of silverplate with the combination of intense heat and water pressure. Silverplate by the late 1950s had become the “reserved service setting” for use only on special occasions, just as Sterling Silver had been considered just 50 years earlier.

I have found that the average set of silverplated flatware, does not hold any significant value. It is said that there are presently over 5,000 different patterns of silverplated flatware, with less than 250 patterns being collectible. So does that mean if my set is not one of the 250 collectible patterns, it’s not worth anything? Not Exactly, The value of silverplate flatware in the current economic era, can have quite a lot to do with what the base metal or the metal underneath the silver. The silver on the flatware usually has little if any value, unless it is a very old heavy plated piece. Copper is one of the most common base metals that was used in the silverplate flatware industry. Even though the silver may tarnish, it usually protected the underlying copper from turning green. However if the silver becomes worn, often some green corrosion with appear on the piece of silverplate. If copper was the underlying metal, the value of the flatware could have be worth the spot price of copper scrap(sometimes 1 or 2 dollars per piece, depending on spot price and weight). More recent silverplated flatware patterns usually have a zinc based alloy as the base metal, which means their value is minimal.

Silverplated Holloware can be considered an entirely different field as far as silverplate is concerned. Holloware is considered to be bowls, plates, serving dishes, teapots, trays and other pieces not used in cutlery. Silverplated Holloware can have value because due to the fact it is not as common as flatware and when purchased even historically, it carried a higher price tag and held much less of a demand. However like silverplated flatware, holloware does depend on the pattern on it. Some companies who made or make silverplated holloware have also produced Sterling Silver holloware pieces in the same pattern. These silverplated pieces can be worth more than the average holloware, just due to that particular pattern. Silverplated tea sets can carry a price tag of over 100 dollars, because of their age or rarity. Often single pieces of silverplate like tea pots and pitchers carry a price tag of fewer than 100 dollars. Older pieces made before 1880, can sometimes carry a much higher value.

Today in Modern Society, many view silverplate as an unnecessary luxury. Stainless Steel flatware is predominately used due to its durability, dependability, and ease of care. Silverplate that has no special or fancy patterns or that was made by a high end firm like Gorham, Tiffany, etc. is left to sit in the unopened drawer or left in a box, possibly to be unpacked in 25 years. The value that remains on this once important and everyday used product of our past is usually intrinsic or heirloom value. Unless the base metal of a common silverplated piece is that of a precious metal like copper it is worth little, as the silverplating carries no scrap value whatsoever. Some pieces do have value due to rarity or beauty, but as Silverplate has lost most of its use and product value as oppose to its higher priced comparison Sterling Silver. Some silverplate does remain near and dear to us, which makes me think it will stick around for a few more generations.

By William Lewis

Saturday Morning Treasures