Your Money: A new gloss on the silver market

John Andrew looks at postwar British silver as the 20th Century Show for antiques opens tonight at Chelsea Old Town Hall.
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Indy Lifestyle Online
View any auction sale for the so-called antiques of the future - in other words items made in recent decades - and you will encounter glass, ceramics, textiles, furniture and an array of objects from TVs to stereos. However, one category that is rarely represented is "designer" post-war silver.

Skilful marketing by the auction houses has created a demand for a multitude of other designer objects, so why not silver?

It remains one of the few areas of post-war design and craftsmanship that has not gained a following. Undoubtedly in the next few years this will change, for this is an era when Britain's silversmiths' designs were both innovative and made to a very high standard. However, before answering the question, it is necessary to look at the public's attitude towards silver.

In the 1990s there have been some very odd things written about the metal. These range from it not suiting modern offices to the fact that it requires cleaning. One commentator even remarked that modern lighting did not show it to advantage. Clearly the poor fellow had strip lighting in his dining room and has never experienced a romantic candle-lit supper!

The myth that people do not want silver has recently been shattered. In 1996 The Association of British Designer Silversmiths was established to raise the profile of the UK's contemporary designer silversmiths. Although its work is in its infancy, its initial efforts have seen astonishing results. Leading jewellers as well as John Lewis now stock items by contemporary silversmiths. The interest has surprised the retailers.

Andrew Duncan from Boodle & Dunthorne notes that it is usually purchased by discerning professionals in the 35-55 age range. They perhaps have an interest in antiques, but are also attracted to contemporary designs.

Martyn Pugh, a designer silversmith from Worcestershire, is selling more silver now than he has in 20 years. He says: "Contemporary design now permeates the public domain, from Conran through Ikea to Ford. It is everywhere. This is particularly important as it implies that reproduction styles are losing their hold over the retail trade and therefore public perception."

Andrew Duncan notes that his customers are purchasing items to use. Typically they will spend pounds 500-pounds 800 a time. However, each item in John Lewis's designer range sells for below pounds 100.

Let us dispel another myth. If silver is used, it does not require a great deal of cleaning - just buffing periodically with gloves impregnated with tarnish preventative, or washing occasionally with proprietary silver foam. Both are stocked by all good stores. Now that there is a growing demand for contemporary designer silver, it is but a small step for an interest to develop in pieces made in recent decades.

Hampson & Lewis is one of the few specialists in the complete range of 20th century silver - Art Nouveau, Arts and Crafts Movement, Art Deco, post-war and the contemporary. Peter Hampson says: "It is certainly a good time to buy good designer silver of the 1960s and 1970s."

The two catalysts that have recently generated interest in such silver, and consequently increased prices for objects as diverse as 1960s glass and pottery, have been exhibitions and books. In June, London's Fay Lucas Gallery will be staging an exhibition of post-war pieces. Then in the autumn a book will be published on the work of Gerald Benney, one of the great British silversmiths of the second half of the 20th century.

So, what silver is available from the 1950s and later? What price would one expect to pay? For pounds 120 Hampson & Lewis has a 1954 pair of drinks coasters by Geoffrey Bellamy, hand engraved with stylised flowers; a 1966 whisky tumbler by Gerald Benney for pounds l85 and a stylish contemporary condiment set by Howard Fenn at pounds 675. Of course, the sky can be the limit. Last year a pair of candelabra weighing a staggering six kilos which were made in 1965 by Gerald Benney sold for over pounds 5,000. However, considering that only two pairs were made - one is in the Victoria and Albert Museum - this is not a fortune for what is an important piece of 1960s design.

Naturally, you should be discerning in what you buy. Peter Hampson looks for two things when he is buying - style and workmanship. "However, I will not buy something which is stylish but not well made. I only buy what I like."

This is sound advice for any buyer to follow. However, do not expect to find post-war British silver available in abundance. It does appear at auction in general sales but as Alex Butcher, head of the silver department at Christie's South Kensington notes, "There is not a great deal around." This is no doubt why the auction houses have not promoted it as a new field for collectors.

One of the reasons for its scarcity is that when silver bullion reached pounds 20 an ounce in 1981, huge quantities of silverware were melted for scrap. As there was no sentimental connection with pieces made a few decades previously, it was consigned to the melting-pot without a thought.

However, if you know what you are looking for, it is still possible to spot a bargain. Recently a three-piece tea service was purchased for pounds 500 from a dealer specialising in antique pieces. It was of no interest to him as it was dated 1965. Made by David Mellor and originally designed for use in newly built British embassies, the order was cancelled by the Labour government at the time. The service was then sold to the public exclusively through Harrods and is easily worth more than pounds 1,000.

Hampson & Lewis, 131E Kensington Church Street, London W8. Tel: 0171- 229 8173.

Fay Lucas, 50 Kensington Church Street, London W8 Tel: 0171-376 1055.

The 20th Century Show, Chelsea Old Town Hall, King's Road, London SW3; Wednesday 11 March, from 6pm, admission pounds 10; Thursday/Friday 11am-8pm, Saturday 11am-6pm, Sunday 11am-5pm, admission pounds 6.

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