Antique silver has its shining hour: Apostle spoons are a reliable starting-point for collectors. Conal Gregory on what to look for

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PRICES for most good antique English silver have been marking time for the past three years, and many dealers and auctioneers say that now is an excellent time to start collecting.

Already, small silver articles have shown price rises against the trend. These include Victorian card cases, wine labels (to hang round the neck of a decanter), matchboxes, corkscrews and tea-caddy spoons.

Investors can now expect to negotiate a good discount off ticket prices in silver shops, while at auction many lots are only reaching the lower end of the estimates.

Yet at Christie's London sale in July, 85 per cent of the lots were sold. Stephen Clarke, an associate director and head of the silver department, says clients are resisting damaged items and are prepared to wait for top quality.

At present private investors have a better chance at silver auctions, since much of the antique trade is over-stocked with middle-range Georgian candlesticks and tea and coffee sets.

Bidding is brisk for pieces by famous names. Christie's sold a set of four 1750 candlesticks by Paul Crespin, originally from Ham House, for pounds 72,000 in July, illustrating the point that top names do not lose appeal.

Within the vast range of antique English silver, where should the new collector look? Peter Waldron, head of Sotheby's silver department, says apostle spoons are 'the most reasonably priced area in which to start buying sixteenth- and seventeenth-century silver'.

Apostle spoons, perhaps given as baptismal or wedding gifts, depict the 12 apostles, each carrying his symbol of martyrdom. A full set would include the Master spoon, with Christ holding the orb and cross.

Collectors of early spoons were worried about forgeries in the Eighties, but a successful prosecution has restored confidence. You may come across Georgian dessert spoons circa 1740 to which a cast figure has been added, but any reputable dealer will advise you.

Eric Smith, who has more than 20 years' experience in the silver business and 16 years at Phillips, tips apostle spoons, 'one of the most reliable forms of collecting'. He says this is because they can be dated precisely and are among the earliest surviving examples of English silver - presumably spared from being melted down because they were heirlooms.

Most such spoons were made to a single order as a gift, so expect some variation in style. The works of provincial makers, particularly from the West Country, are much in demand.

Brand Inglis, a London dealer, has a Taunton example from 1668 by Thomas Dare - depicting the Master, but without orb and cross - for pounds 2,000, up from pounds 800 or pounds 900 a decade ago. He also has a 1656 Exeter one by Edward Anthony, of St Jude with his long cross, for pounds 1,100, which would have been pounds 300 to pounds 400 10 years ago.

For country marks, look for Leeds and Chester, followed by Norwich, Ipswich and York. Many provincial spoons do not currently command high prices. Christie's sold a Salisbury example of St Matthew, circa 1600, for pounds 800 in March last year and an Exeter St Matthew, circa 1650, for pounds 700 in December 1989.

London makers still command the highest prices, with generally better casting. Examine the join to the stem, since no reputable spoon is cast in one piece. A 'V' splice is usual with London makers, while country ones generally used a cabinet-maker's dovetail joint, seen easily from the side.

Prices are certainly rising for London examples. A fine James I period St James the Less, circa 1610, made pounds 375 in 1971, while what was likely the same spoon sold last year for pounds 1,600.

Condition and age, from 1560-80 and even earlier, determine much higher prices. A Henry VII figure of St John, made in London in 1508, sold in March 1991 at Christie's for pounds 4,200, up from pounds 500- pounds 700 10 years earlier.

Specialists in London other than Brand Inglis (9 Halkin Arcade, Motcomb St, SW1) who can usually offer apostle spoons are J H Bourdon-Smith (24 Mason's Yard, Duke Street, SW1Y 6BU) and S J Shrubsole (43 Museum Street, WC1A 1LY). All three belong to the British Antique Dealers' Association, an added protection for investors.

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