In the past 2 years the spot silver price has risen by over 95%. In April 2010 a 1oz silver coin could be bought for around $16. Contrast this with the April 2011 price whereby an ounce of silver bullion would cost you a minimum of $48.50! Although prices have fallen back a little since then, many market analysts claim that this is a minor correction in a bull market that will continue for the next three to ten years, some predicting a triple to quadruple rise in prices.
All this is very well for investors in silver bullion and I wish them the best of luck for their investments. However what I have witnessed as a result of these prices in the auction houses and antique fairs in the north of the UK has deeply troubled me.
It seems the bullion worth of silver items in some cases has outstripped their value as antiques and collectables. As such, a new breed of ‘dealer’ has emerged – The ‘Scrapper’.
‘The scrapper’ turns up to the auction viewing with a pair of digital scales and with one motive in mind. He is attempting to buy any silver (or gold) that slips through the net with the specific intent of melting it down. I have seen people spend £2000 just to earn £20 profit by melting. I know that these ‘dealers’ are doing this as I have walked past their vans at the end of the auction, where I have seen countless teapots dumped into cardboard boxes with their wooden handles and finials removed Beautiful weighted candle sticks with their innards gutted. Many make no effort to hide the practice. I have seen in my time one man who collected his lots from the auction porter and then proceeded to stamp on each and every one in turn and dump it in a black bin bag in front of the auctioneer!
This practice is also a distinct problem for the dealer of collectable silver items. It is now rare to be able to purchase silver at any price where there is a margin for resale. Why would a collector who has been purchasing collectable spoons for decades, now be willing to pay so much more for the same item? As such any casual search of online auction sites will reveal many silver items achieving little to no margin above the bullion value.
Now thankfully, most items that have any quality hold a value above the bullion price, and so it’s really only the lower end of the silver market that suffers from this practice. This is not always the case however. At the height of the bullion price I saw a fantastic stylish art deco tea set go to a known scrapper. I did not have the funds on the day to rescue this item, and now unfortunately I know that it is no longer with us and is probably part of a mobile phone.
Despite perhaps only the lower end suffering a fiery fate at the hands of the smelter, I still view this as a distinct problem. If the prediction of a quadruple price rise comes to pass, then the problem will begin to extend to more important items as the premium above bullion that people are willing to pay disappears. Never again will these items be made. We are but stewards of history, and these items – rare or common – are irreplaceable. The reason I love my job is because every item has a story to tell and a history intertwined with its use. ‘Scrapping’ robs us vital artifacts that tell us the story of our past. This is no more evident than in this email I received recently:
"While browsing the web I came across your, now my spoon. It was the 3 Daws that excited me. We have in Gravesend a 15th century riverside pub called the 3 Daws. A "Daw" is an abbreviated version of jackdaw. At one time the pub was called the Cornish Chough, another bird of the crow family. Well, I picked up the spoon from the post office, went to my local library and looked up the landlord of the 3 Daws for the period of the spoon’s hallmark, 1806. From 1778 – 1820 the landlord was Solomon Ribben. In fact he was one of many Ribbens who held the license from the 18th through to well into the 19th. As the monogram was unclear I took it to my friendly jeweler and without any prompting asked him to identify the letters. Without hesitation he said it was S. M. R. with the M being set back from the other 2 letters. So it seems that the spoon has found its way back to the town it came from."
Personally I have begun to shift my inventory to dolls, toys and collectables. This to me seems an area where items are valued for their historical and cultural significance and ignore such mundane calculations such as weight! Since the shift (and my decision to open a Ruby Lane shop) my love the business has been renewed somewhat. Silver was my first love, but I’m afraid the state of the market has become too much of a depressing (and unprofitable) place.
Written by: Alexander Quinn
Post Box Antiques on Ruby Lane