A Guide to Antique Silver Hallmarks
For collectors, the appeal of antique silverware at auction often lies in the exquisite beauty, the quality and the history, and one way to discover this history – and assess quality – is by examining the small markings that often grace these objects. Antique silver hallmarks help specialists and collectors identify the maker, the date and the purity – and can help you uncover the rare and collectable.
A History of Antique Silver Hallmarks
Since medieval times, British makers have branded their silverware with small markings – initially to ascertain quality. While Henry III made an attempt to regulate the quality of gold and silver wares, it was Edward I who passed a statute in 1300 decreeing that silver had to be of sterling standard (92.5% pure) and that “it be marked with the leopard’s head.” This was done by The ‘Guardians of the craft’, who travelled throughout London to assay work and apply the mark.
Just over 60 years later, the Maker’s Mark was introduced. Goldsmiths & silversmiths now had to include their own maker’s symbol alongside the leopard’s head. And in 1478, creators began using the Date Letter, a letter which symbolised the year of creation.
The leopard symbol changed over the centuries – to a leopard with a crown, a lion facing sideways, and the lion passant (a lion head facing the viewer). For a period, royal markings were also used, as Casi Prischl, Jewels & Silver Specialist, explains:
“The monarch’s head was first hallmarked on silver pieces in 1784 and lasted until 1890, and it indicated the duty had been paid to the crown. Since the 1600’s the monarchs portrait faces in the opposite direction of their predecessor, making it easier to identify which period a piece may come from.”
The first ‘Guardians of the Craft’ were the Wardens of the Goldsmiths’ Guild in London. Other offices opened in Edinburgh (in the 15th century), and in Birmingham and Sheffield in 1773. Dublin’s assay office has been operating since the middle of the 17th century.
Pictured: The markings on a Georgian Sterling Silver Creamer, John Emes, London, 1800
What Hallmarks Tell You
If you look at antique silverware, you’ll notice that these hallmarks – the standard mark, makers make and date letter – are usually displayed in a line.
Also included is a hallmark to indicated the place of assay. The leopard’s or lion’s head typically indicates the London Assay Office. The Edinburgh symbol is a three-turreted castle, with either a thistle or lion. A crown and a rosette is the symbol of Sheffield, and an anchor indicates Birmingham. If you notice a crowned harp, with or without the figure of Hibernia, it may indicate the piece was assayed in Dublin.
There have been other offices throughout the United Kingdom, and in Scotland and Ireland, town marks were sometimes used in lieu of assay office symbols.
Pictured: A Georgian Sterling Silver Tea Service, London 1833, Maker: Edward, Edward Junior, John and William Barnard
How to Decode Antique Silver Markings
If you are interested in learning more about antique silverware, there are a number of publications focusing on antique silver hallmarks. Essay offices such as The Goldsmith’s Company also have a wealth of information on the standards, date, maker’s and essay office marks.
It’s worth noting that a silver hallmark doesn’t always mean the piece is an authentic sterling silver antique. There have always been forgers and swindlers, and one trick has been to stamp hallmarks onto silver plate (a base metal coated with silver) and silver objects of inferior quality.
According to The Goldsmith’s Company, counterfeiting hallmarks became a felony in 1757, and it was punishable by death.
Pictured: A Pair Of Victorian Sterling Silver Napkin Rings With Floral Engraved Detail, George Nathan & Ridley Hayes, Chester, 1899
The Ingenuity of Ancient Hallmarks
Today, specialists use several factors to factors to identify and assess antique silverware – including item weight and provenance – but antique silver hallmarks still play a vital role.
“The tradition and ingenuity of hallmarks allows us to readily identify a small part of history, that is stamped and remains with a piece for the rest of it’s life,” observes Casi.
If you are considering selling antique silverware at auction, out specialists can assess your items with an online appraisal, or provide formal valuations for estate or taxation purposes.
Pictured: A Tiffany & Co, Sterling Silver Pierced Filigree Tray with Matching Jam Pot, together with a Victorian Sterling Silver Jam Spoon, John Murray or John Muir, Glasgow, 1843