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Collect to Invest: Silver spoons regain their sparkle

Christie's expectation of pounds 100,000-pounds 150,000 for a famous set of 12 silver 17th century apostle spoons next month is a reminder that prices for collectable wrought silver - and apostle spoons in particular - are showing a sharp rise. Although the silver market remained stable during the recession, it has been dull for a decade.

Dating from the 15th century, apostle spoons, with cast and chased terminals representing saints, have risen in value at auction by some 50 per cent in the past couple of years. You can still buy 17th century apostles with unascribed maker's marks for under pounds 500 - if you are lucky - but those whose makers are known have been selling for three and four times estimate.

For example, at Sotheby's last July, an English provincial silver-gilt apostle spoon with an unascribed mark of about 1655 sold for a modest pounds 368, towards the low end of its pounds 350-pounds 450 estimate. But in the same sale, a St Bartholomew spoon of 1636 with the mark of Robert Tyte of Salisbury made pounds 1,955, four times the pounds 400-pounds 600 estimate.

The reason why an unascribed spoon of 1550, estimated pounds 600-pounds 800, fetched a whopping pounds 2,185, was probably because the buyer had had more time to discover a name for the unascribed WC and star mark than the auctioneers.

For a variety of reasons, well-heeled new buyers are entering the apostle spoon market. They are middle aged and retired lawyers, bankers and accountants - not only British but Americans and Australians - with time to read the growing number of textbooks that have made spoon-buying less of a lottery.

A Henry VIII St Matthias spoon, estimated pounds 5,000-pounds 8,000 at David Lay's auction house in Penzance three years ago, would have fetched nowhere near the pounds 18,700 that was paid for it if Timothy Kent, a retired barrister and leading spoon expert, had not identified and published its fringed S mark as belonging to William Simpson, apprenticed to the London maker Robert Preston in 1499.

Simpson was one of the finest and most prolific makers of the first half of the 16th century. Kent's book on the spoon makers of the West Country - where many apostle spoons come from - has had a steadily growing impact on the market since its publication in 1992.

Although prices for apostle spoons will probably continue to rise for a year or two, it is safest to consider this as a seller's market. The high prices are not being paid by speculators hoping for a quick profit, or by interior designers (seven-inch spoons can hardly be said to liven up a room) but by discerning collectors who want that spoon even if they have to pay through the nose.

If they pause to think of investment, they might consider, wisely, returning their rarest purchases to auction in 10 years' time. By then, today's new collectors will have had their fill of run-of-the-mill pieces and will be competing even more fiercely for top-of-the-market gems.

Such maturation of the market is already evident. A 1490 spoon depicting St James the Greater, from the earliest recorded set of hallmarked apostle spoons, fetched pounds 22,000 at Phillips in October 1990 and pounds 32,200 at Christie's in July 1993 - a gain of pounds 10,200 in less than three years. If you really want to invest, you must dig deep to buy the very best.

The rarities being cashed in at Sotheby's on 5 March are the 12 apostle spoons of the Swaythling Collection, reputedly presented by Charles II to Martha Clayton, wife of Sir Robert Clayton, Lord Mayor of London. Six date from 1524 and six from 1553. Complete 16th century sets are exceptionally rare. The Swaythling group is probably the finest of only two such sets still in private hands.

There are reasons other than improved documentation to feel confidence in apostle spoons. They are cheaper, and available in larger, more collectable numbers, than any other 16th or early 17th century objects. And they have lasting charm as cherished possessions from the days when cutlery was scarce (ordinary people carried their own spoons) and when families knew the saints' names and prayed together before meals. They were sometimes given as christening presents.

The current surge is, in part, a response to the all-clear following the flooding of the spoon market in the early Eighties by the forger Martin Russell. Almost all of his expert work has now been eradicated.

While fear of spoon forgeries lasted, other silver collectables such as tea caddies, wine labels and Vesta boxes increased steadily in price. Fine examples of each sell for around pounds 2,000. An eagle's wing tea caddy of 1830 that would have been worth pounds 1,200-pounds 1,500 two years ago sold for pounds 3,800 at Phillips in January.

By comparison, apostle spoons are two or three centuries older, at least as fascinating, and, until recently, less expensive. Their current rise in value can be interpreted as the filling of the price vacuum artificially created by the forgeries. So drawers of escalating price graphs should not be over-optimistic.

As for the current heavy speculation in bullion silver by the "Sage of Omaha", Warren Buffett - bullion prices have little or no effect on wrought silver prices. Even at pounds 4 an ounce, silver content is only a tiny proportion of total value. But it's comforting for collectors to know that someone is taking an interest.

Besides bidding at auction, consider visiting the country's leading spoon dealers, JH Bourdon-Smith, where the author of the standard guides on spoons, Mr Kent, can be consulted. The firm makes a point of selling nothing that it would not buy back. There is also a silver spoon collectors' club.

The next auction at Phillips, who are good on spoons, is 15 April, 12 noon.

Two standard guides by Tim Kent, available from JH Bourdon-Smith, 24 Mason's Yard, Duke Street, London SW1Y 6BU: "London Silver Spoon Makers, 1500-1697" (published by the Silver Society) 1981, pounds 8 + p&p pounds 1 inland, pounds 2 abroad. "West Country Silver Spoons and Their Makers", 1550-1750 (published by Bourdon-Smith), 1992, pounds 35 + p&p pounds 3 inland, pounds 7 abroad.

An annual subscription for the Spoon Collectors Club costs pounds 29.50 and includes its bi-monthly journal `The Finial'. Contact Terry and Mary Haines, Glenleigh Park, Sticker, St Austell, Cornwall PL26 7JD (01726 65269).