It's something we all dream if – the old "pewter" beer mug inherited from great-uncle Claude turns out to be Georgian silver, worth a four-figure sum or more! How do you tell whether metal ornaments, jewellery, cutlery and plate are valuable?
Check for hallmarks – the tiny, match-head-sized symbols tamped in rows of four or so on the base or sides of articles made of precious metal. They indicate the age, origins and maker of the object, as well as its proportions of gold or silver to alloy.
If it is not stamped!
The fact that something hasn't been marked, whatever its origin, doesn't necessarily mean it is not valuable – plenty of beautiful pieces were made, even in England, which their makers never bothered to have stamped.
How to tell? Well, there is the acid test, to detect pure from base metal (scratch the base of the object and apply a little hydrochloric acid; silver objects turn grey; base metal turns green, gold won't react at all. If that sounds too technical, you can always fall back on the "eye" test – the better it looks, and the more work in it, the more likely it is to have been made from a precious metal.
Silver plating or electroplating was perfected in 1842 by Elkington & Co., of Birmingham. Articles of copper, Britannia metal, nickel silver, nickel, brass or British plate were used as a base and coated with a layer of pure silver. The item to be plated was attached to a negative pole and submerged in a solution of potassium cyanide.
The positive pole was attached to a 100 percent pure silver sheet.
| A silver plated cocktail shaker in the form of a penguin.
Impressed Napier Patents by Emile Schmelker.
A low voltage current was passed through the solution. The silver sheets acted as a cathode producing silver ions which passed through the solution adhering to the surface. The quality of the product was partly determined by how clean the cement lined vats where the solution was kept, as foreign bodies in the solution caused imperfections.
Once the item was removed from the solution, the article was hammered over its surface to ensure that the silver coating had adhered properly, and then burnished. In general, unmarked English EPNS is from Birmingham.