Collecting antique silver to enhance home decor

The art of the silversmith has always intrigued and given satisfaction to collectors. And since recent fluctuations in the price of silver have ended and the market has again become stable, good values in antique silver are once more apparent.

Anthony Phillips, vice president in charge of silver at Christie's auction gallery in New York says that silver collectors fall into two camps. Serious collectors are only after works of art and will spend enormous sums of money to get them. At a recent Christie's sale in New York, for instance, Jacques Koopman , a London dealer paid $390,000 for a pair of silver gilt tureens by Jean-Baptiste-Claude Odiot, a record price.

Then there are the majority of collectors - ordinary people with modest desires to own a few functional items of silver such as coffee and tea pots, cachepots, sugar and mustard pots, bowls, sauce boats, candlesticks, plates, ladles, tongs, serving spoons, and flatware. Most of them hope, in the bargain, to enhance their tables and their decorative schemes with the gentle luster and pleasing lines of the useful silver objects that they choose.

We put the following questions to Mr. Phillips, a soft-spoken Englishman, who says he got his own start by working as a assistant in a silver shop while he was in college. He offers the following pointers on buying and collecting silver:

How does one learn about silver? It is difficult, because there are few courses given anywhere. One simply has to go around the shops and the museums and auctions and look and handle as many pieces as possible. The best silver collection in the country is at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Colonial Williamsburg has another fine collection, as does the Los Angeles County Museum, and the Huntington Museum.

Are there a few basic books that one could study? For a starter, those most readily available might be ''A Dictionary of American Silver, Pewter and Silverplate'' by Ralph M. and Terry Kovel, and ''An Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers'' by Dorothy T. Rainwater, both of which were published by Crown Publishers, Inc. in 1975. I also recommend ''The Collector's Dictionary of the Silver and Gold of Great Britain and North America'' by Michael Clayton, published by World Publishing Company of New York and Cleveland.

What about auctions? In New York, all the auction houses hold silver sales about the same time, three times a year, in February, June, and October. At these one can see and examine as many as l500 lots of silver, which is a huge range and gives an interested collector a wide exposure.

What does one look for? You examine for workmanship, condition, design, weight, and marks. You tend to find that heavy, solid pieces are very often extremely well made and well proportioned. Well-known makers (like Paul Revere, Paul Storr, or Hester Bateman) influence prices upward. So if your means are modest, look for appealing designs by lesser-known makers. Always ask for advice from the experts in shops or auction houses; they are there to guide, explain and educate.

Are there bargains today? Yes, in relation to prices of new silver, there are many. An antique Georgian coffee pot, which has perhaps had a new coat of arms put on it (an addition which is considered 'a problem' in the trade) can be purchased at auction for as little as

500. In an upcoming sale, Christie's has a nice late Georgian (1829) 48-piece table service that we estimate might go for $3000 to $5000. It is possible also to get a pair of Georgian cast candlesticks for less than $2500. There are many less-than-perfect pieces, or worn pieces, or assorted smaller table items, at relatively inexpensive prices. Many fine Georgian teaspoons are available at less than $50. And Georg Jensen silver patterns now sell at far less at auction than they do new in the shops, and are excellent value.

What kind of care of silver do you recommend? We generally use Gorham's or Haggerty's plate powder at Christie's because we think it is kind to the finish on the silver. We use dip only occasionally on ornate pieces. We are opposed to mechanical buffing, even when pieces are scratched because we think it does more harm than good, and indeed ruins some pieces. We never wrap silver in that clear plastic wrap (which we find does eventually mark the surface of a piece) but prefer to protect things we are putting away in storage with the impregnated tarnish-proof wrapping tissue paper which protects from sulphur in the atmosphere and is sold in certain hardware and specialty stores. We only recommend lacquering on elaborate and ornate pieces.

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