Markings on a silver piece indicate the item has been inspected at some point or another in its life. Those markings may also bring high dollar value at auction so it is important that you know what they mean. There are tens of thousands of different antique silver marks and all may be found in varying degree of wear and tear. These small impressions have been forged over the years and need to be inspected today to ensure authenticity and value.
How are the Marks Made
Silver isn’t the hardest metal, but marks took time to stamp into the metal. Specialized tools known as a hammer and punch were used to imprint maker’s marks into the metal before it was fully cooled. The punch was held onto the silver piece and a hammer struck the imprint of the punch rod into the precious metal. After the mark was made, the entire piece was smoothed and polished.
The amount of detail in many of the antique silver marks today is astounding to think of given their small size. Some of the punches may have been made from steel bars, as a metal stronger than silver is needed to withstand repeated blows, but there isn’t much information on how these truly talented silversmiths accomplished the task of making their marks.
In order to make the marks we study today, it had to be made in a mirror image on the tiny punch rod. There are some references to old Scottish Provincial punches being hand carved by sharpened nails. There were no lasers back then like there are today to achieve such precision.
There are accounts that around 1786 assay offices in England began using a simple machine to quickly stamp the Hallmarks into place. Even so, much care had to be taken to ensure the craftsmanship was undamaged in the process. Over time the punches would have worn down and more would need to be crafted. An astounding feat when contemplated and intriguing when you stop to consider the effort put into the piece you have in your estate today.
Identifying Fraudulent Antique Silver Marks
The most common fraudulent marks are those that mark silver pieces sterling when it is in fact silver plated. With a few simple tests a dealer is able to resolve purity suspicion without devaluing the artifact. But for the most part fraudulent marks are not as ubiquitous as some may think. They most certainly exist, but stiff penalties existed, and still do, for tampering with marks upheld by the law.
For instance, prior to the 1720’s, any offender caught falsifying a silver hallmark was put in stocks and assaulted with rotten produce. If they had a second offense, they lost a limb. Any further offenses and they were put to death. The punishment was so severe because any behavior that tampered with silver was seen as tampering with minted currency. In other words, it was seen as treason by undermining the realm’s coin.
Are you thinking of having your antique silver appraised? Our experienced and enthusiastic team of experts will gladly tell you about any marks your piece may have and if it’s a good idea to have it appraised or not.