About Me

Growing up in a small New England town with a mother who was an antiquarian it was inevitable that I would be exposed to old things. After graduating from UMass/Amherst I lived in Connecticut, taught school, married, and raised three children in suburbia. A move to Newburyport MA renewed my interest in all things old. This background has now evolved into research, writing, consulting and all the things I love to do.

Prudence Fish

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

IS IT SILVER OR WERE YOU RIPPED OFF?

 

 ALL THAT GLITTERS IS NOT SILVER


There is something nice about having a silver spoon with which to stir your cup of coffee or tea.  At least I think so!


This year, not wanting to use sterling every day in the kitchen, I had a brainstorm.  Since antique mid 19th century coin silver (900 parts silver per thousand versus sterling at 925 parts per thousand) are delicate and elegant but not too expensive I decided to put together a collection of twelve nearly matching fiddle back coin silver spoons.  I would retire  the stainless steel. It wouldn't be too extravagant, a little elegant but no need to worry if one was lost or bent.

I did a little research to single out a silversmith whose spoons were relatively easy to find in order to have a set that somewhat matched.  A search on eBay led me to Hall and Elton, silversmiths from Geneva, New York. There seemed to be many offerings for their spoons. So I bid on several groups or singles that would make  up a set of twelve.  All were of the mid 19th century fiddle back style and I was having a good time pulling this new collection together and excited about my solution for getting rid of stainless steel without the worry of losing or abusing my good sterling..

Soon the packages began to arrive.  Some had been cleaned and some were slightly tarnished but not badly.  I got out the Wright’s Silver Cream, the old standby silver polish made in New England, and went to work.  I thought I would be thrilled with my new spoons but something kept telling me that I wasn’t really impressed or entirely happy with them.  What was wrong?  They were not plated, they were genuinely old, they weren’t scratched or damaged so what was my problem?  I was feeling so deflated but couldn't put my finger on the source of my disappointment in the spoons..

Eventually, I hit the books and the Internet and discovered something that I had never known or suspected.  These antique spoons were not coin silver!  So what were they?

The following is typical of what different Internet sites had to say about Hall and Elton.

“There were makers that marked the wares just like coin silver, but the metal was something other than predominantly silver. Although it is not one hundred percent true, Hall & Elton is one example of a maker that marked their wares like coin, but it was not coin.”

If it was not silver what the heck was it?

Many pieces are being sold as coin silver which should be 900 parts silver.  But sometimes the look and texture is not right. Possibly Hall & Elton created their own alloy that included only a small amount of silver...or none at all.  This is sometimes referred to as “German silver or nickel silver”.  As it tarnishes it looks more and more dingy with a decidedly yellow cast.  When compared with genuine coin silver the difference is readily apparent.

Over the years it is possible that Hall and Elton made coin spoons and later on made plated spoons but the market seems to have plenty of examples of these inferior spoons.  I have no proof that Hall and Elton made any real coin silver spoons.  All the spoons I purchased were this alloy,  nary a coin silver spoon in the lot.

I used them for a time.  The yellow cast grew worse quickly, some even developed green corrosion.  I soon realized I couldn’t continue using them so sat down with my polish to at least clean them up and then decide what to do with them.  After a lot of elbow grease was expended on two spoons the result was not even close to satisfactory.

I decided that they were not worth the cost of the silver cream or my time so I threw them into a bag with no idea what to do with them next.  Do I throw away genuine antique spoons from 1840 or 1850?  They are not damaged, just inferior and very discolored and tarnished. I don't want them and I don't know who would.

Checking on eBay today I found twelve offerings for Hall and Elton spoons advertised as coin silver and only three described as German silver or an alloy.
Yellow tarnish that is stubborn.  Polishing
does not achieve a good result.on Hall and
Elton antique spoons.
(German silver is also sometimes referred to as nickel silver).  Mostly there is no silver content or very little silver content. They are an alloy comprised of copper, zinc and nickel.

Looking at recent eBay completed sales twelve listings were represented as coin, two were accurately listed as an alloy, one honest seller admitted not knowing whether they were coin or an alloy and one seller even stated that his spoons had a greenish tint!  Oh my!  Not a good sign!

If you look online at photos of Hall and Elton spoons the yellow tinge, the dullness and the dingy look comes through loud and clear.  Polishing may improve them but the final result doesn’t pass especially compared in my case to my family’s Newell Harding spoons in the same style and similar age made in Boston.
True coin silver Newell Harding spoon polishes nicely..
Several years ago I bought a beautiful pierced serving piece at an antiques show.  It was marked sterling by the dealer on the tag but the price was low.  It looked good to me so I bought it and showed it to a friend who deals in antique silver.  He assured me that it was sterling and quite lovely.  The mark on the back said Alpaca. As it turns out Alpaca or Alpacca is just another name for German or nickel silver.  My serving piece could have fooled anyone! It was not as old as my spoons and probably never used.

Recently I have noticed Alpacca (Alpaca) spoons advertised as plated.  That is no more accurate than calling them coin silver.  They are not plated!

Here is what eBay says about Alpaca.

Alpaca Silver (Alpacca) refers to an alloy that imitates sterling silver. This non-precious bright silvery-grey metal alloy is made up of copper, zinc and nickel and sometimes iron. Alpaca Silver does NOT contain any real silver; it is just another name for Nickel Silver”.

I can’t say that there are not some Hall and Elton spoons out there that are really coin.  None of my purchases were coin but all were represented as coin.  I am not faulting the sellers.  I’ve been interested in silver for a long time but I was clueless and I expect the sellers were as well.
I am also not suggesting that Hall and Elton were the only company using this alloy to make inferior spoons.  There are probably others but my “matched set” are a real flop.  By the time I retired them they were disgusting!   If nothing else it was a lesson learned.

BEWARE!  It brings to mind my own version of the old familiar  adage.  All that glitters is not silver.”

What about that bagful of ugly spoons?  I certainly won't try to palm them off on another unsuspecting buyer.  I won't use them.  They are antique but as far as I'm concerned they are worthless!

How about those  stainless steel teaspoons that I rejected?   Hmmm!  I guess  I wasn't born with a silver spoon in my mouth after all!  Stainless is looking better all the time.

2 comments:

  1. Hello Prudence, It was your bad luck to start out with Hall and Elton, one of the largest makers of nickel-silver. I would recommend that would-be buyers start out by looking at and handling many types of silver implements--the characteristics of coin and sterling (such as color and black tarnish) are much different from plated ware and alternate metals.

    Utensils marked sterling, coin, 800 or 925 are usually o.k., as are some unmarked pieces, in which case you have to depend on hallmarks or the appearance of the metal. Oddly, the actual word "silver" itself in any form, as well as Alpaca or any other strange words, usually indicates the so-called nickel-silver.

    It is not difficult to distinguish among the grades of silver with a little experience. When I was in college, I went to a lot of junk shops, and picked up many coin and sterling pieces, mostly spoons, for very little money.
    --Jim

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  2. Hi Jim,
    Thanks for writing. I have always had an eye for silver especially old fused Sheffield. There are lots of Hall and Elton spoons out there but I was really caught off guard. I have avoided nickel silver items such as holloware but it didn't occur to me that those old thin spoons were anything other than coin! I don't think the sellers intended to misrepresent them but were as naive as I was.

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