Silver lining on the dining table

An investment of pounds 800 in old forks and spoons can realise a retur n of up to pounds 3,000
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The Independent Online
IT SOUNDS too good to be true. An outlay of pounds 800 can result in a useful investment worth pounds 2,500 to pounds 3,000. Apart from the money, all that is required is time, patience and a spot of good luck.

The vehicle for this potentially lucrative venture is nothing more than old silver forks and spoons. It is quite possible to form a matched canteen of a dozen place settings for pounds 800 or so by purchasing each item of cutlery in half-dozens, or even four or five pieces at a time. The total outlay will be less than buying a dozen brand new silver table forks.

If the pieces are well-matched, your guests will not realise that your table is set with cutlery made at various dates by different makers. There are various standard designs that have been made for years; for example, Old English, Kings and Fiddle patterns. Sizes and shapes can vary slightly, so care should be taken to ensure that purchases are as nearly identical as possible.

A well-matched canteen with the pieces made by the same maker within the same decade will be worth pounds 2,500 to pounds 3,000. It is therefore worth being patient rather than buying indiscriminately.

All English silver bears a hallmark from which the place and date of assay can be gleaned. All you need is a pocketbook of hallmarks to be able to read the marks. Each piece also bears the initials of the maker.

Pieces suitable for forming a matched canteen date from around 1800. The price for loose items is about pounds 4-pounds 5 an ounce, with half-dozen sets selling for around pounds 10 an ounce. A set of table forks and spoons as well as dessert spoons will cost from pounds 120 to pounds 140 per half-dozen. Dessert forks are scarcer, and even a set of six made in the 1930s can cost around pounds 200.

Teaspoons are available from around pounds 40. Collectors of matched canteens generally buy new knives with either silver or imitation bone handles. Addresses of suppliers are found in antique magazines.

It surprises many people when they learn that in many cases antique or old silver costs less than their brand-new equivalent. The reason is that the prices of pieces from a past age are determined purely by supply and demand, not their manufacturing cost. Old silver can sell for a quarter of the retail price of brand-new pieces.

To dine in real style, you will, of course, require the entire table to be set with silver. Georgian mustard pots are in demand and sell for around pounds 300 to pounds 350. Eighteenth-century "cauldron" salts (these are circular and stand on three small legs) are good value at pounds 200 to pounds 250. However, good quality peppers are not as widely available, and even 1930s and 1940s reproductions sell at pounds 120 to pounds 160 a pair. Twentieth-century three-piece condiment sets command about pounds 140.

Sauce-boats have been increasingly sought in recent years. Though a good Georgian one may sell for around pounds 500, a pair will cost pounds 1,500 to pounds 2,000.

However, a quality late Victorian or Edwardian single boat in the Georgian style can be obtained from pounds 150 to pounds 200, or pounds 500 to pounds 600 for a pair. The price of 1930s examples in the traditional style falls to pounds 70 to pounds 100 and pounds 180 to pounds 220 respectively, but then so does the quality.

It is always pleasant to have a drink served on a silver salver. Whereas a 10-inch diameter Georgian piece will sell for pounds 500 to pounds 700, a 20th- century example in the traditional style will command from pounds 200.

As Stephen Helliwell at Christie's in South Kensington remarked: "It depends whether the Italians are in town." Buyers from Italy have recently forced the price for these above pounds 300 at recent sales.

Any meal is enhanced by soft music and a few flickering candles. Romantic settings are in demand and even a pair of 1920s or 1930s candlesticks will sell in the pounds 400-pounds 600 range. A pair of three-branch candelabra will command pounds 3,000 to pounds 5,000, but a single example comes cheaper at pounds 800 to pounds 1,000.

Forming a collection of antique or old dining silver is not only fun, but represents a considerable saving on the price of brand-new. Astute buying can result in pieces of lasting value that will become treasured heirlooms.

A cautionary word. Do not plunge into the market unprepared. Adopt the military technique of examining the lie of the land. Read up the subject; learn how to read hallmarks and talk to dealers and auctioneers.

Some of the golden rules to follow are:

q Avoid damaged or badly repaired pieces. However, minor dents can be removed by a silversmith.

q Do not buy items with worn hallmarks.

q Only buy what you like.