Gilt complex

Gold may have greater value, but silver is no poor second when it comes to making a reliable investment. Winifred Carr reports
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The Independent Online
If you did not inherit the family silver, now is the time to buy your own. Prices at auction of middle-range silver tableware are stable, rarely rising above the pre-sale estimates. A Victorian three-piece afternoon tea service of teapot and gilt-lined milk jug and sugar basin was sold in London for pounds 483 a few weeks ago. The estimate was pounds 450 to pounds 550, a typical price for what the salesrooms call "repeatables".

An art-deco ceramic teapot by Clarice Cliff would have cost more and, unlike the silver, would be kept nowadays for display and never used at the table. Exceptions to the present reasonable prices of silver are collector's items and rare sought-after pieces such as early salvers, tea caddies, serving dishes with covers and early casters for sugar and spices. Even so such special silver still can be used - with care - for its original, intended purpose, which is always an extra bonus when buying antiques. The Victorian passion for decoration produced tea silver embossed with scrolls, flutes, leaves and festoons, with pie-crust rims and knobs shaped as flowers, fruit and shells.

As the simple and fluid lines of art nouveau took over, Victorian exuberance was considered to be vulgar. But it is now sought after, even though it takes more time to clean and polish than unadorned silver. Small items usually are offered in lots which sometimes include real bargains, such as the George III Old English pattern cream ladle among a collection of butter knives, spoons and forks sold for pounds 172 a few weeks ago. A Victorian fish slice and fork engraved with a fisherman landing his catch, which was among a group of sugar tongs and a toddy ladle, sold for pounds 276. Betjeman was scathing about fish knives but no better tools have been invented for dealing with dividing and serving a large fish than a flat slice and a wide fork.

Serving spoons and other flatware are always useful and over time it is possible to assemble a canteen of a dozen each of spoons, forks and knives by sticking to one classical pattern such as Rat Tail or Old English. Check that bowls, handles and tines are not badly worn since it will not be worthwhile to have them repaired. Pickle forks and spoons with handles long enough to reach into jars were introduced in the mid-l9th century. Berry spoons, their bowls embossed with fruit and matching sugar spoons with pierced bowls, were popular from the early 1800s. A pair of mid-Victorian parcel-gilt berry spoons with sugar spoon and matching sugar tongs sold recently for pounds 241.

Spoons attract collectors more than any other silver items. The Silver Spoon Club of Great Britain has world-wide membership and publishes an illustrated bi-monthly journal. Keen collectors push prices up but the spoons they are looking for are usually early and unusual examples and elaborate "picture backs" which have illustrations of birds, flowers, fruit or country scenes on the backs of the bowls.

Caddy spoons in particular tend to be collected rather than put to use nowadays, thanks to the teabag. Their range of design is large and imaginative - from tiny shovels and scoops to jockey caps, fluted shells, cupped hands, hearts, horse shoes and tea leaves with curved stalks for handles. Good examples can be found for about pounds 50 but when they are sold in groups, the bidding is always keen.

Toast racks are of more practical use. The earliest, dating from around 1750, are simple in design and made from heavy silver wire. One sold recently for pounds l72 and would look right on even the most modern breakfast table. Victorian ones are more elaborate and often have a novelty theme such as crossed cricket bats or twigs for the dividers.

Covered square dishes for sardines and scallop shells for butter turn up regularly, as do elaborately pierced baskets for cakes, fruit and bon- bons and cow creamers which are attractive but almost impossible to keep hygienically clean inside.

Mustard pots and salt cellars are easy to find and worth buying even if their glass liners are missing. New liners from stock or tailor-made can be bought from a number of sources including Blue Crystal Glass, Unit 6/8, 21, Wren Street, London WClX OHF, telephone 0171-278 0142.

The new silver galleries at the Victoria & Albert Museum have 1,200 pieces on show, dating from the 14th century to the present day and covering all aspects of the silversmith's craft, from design and hallmaking to care and cleaning and the detection of fakes. The exhibits include a snuff box, believed to have been given to Nell Gwyn by Charles II and a collection of 18th century cow creamers as well as heraldic and ecclesiastical silver.

Regular sales of silver and plate are held at Christie's. South Kensington, telephone 0171-581 7611 and Bonham's Knightsbridge, telephone 0171-393 3900. The Silver Spoon Club of Great Britain can be reached on 01726 65269.

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