Every antique enthusiast dreams of finding a “sleeper”, a antique that is greatly undervalued or not recognized for the quality that it is. I first had this thrill while digging through a bin of junk stainless and silver plated flatware that were being given away.
Imagine my surprise and delight when I discovered 40 pieces of sterling in the mix, free for the taking! I was able to capitalize on this opportunity because I was able to tell the difference between silver plate and sterling silver, and with the tips below I hope you will
be able to find a “sleeper” of your own.
First of all, it is perhaps best to clarify exactly what the difference between silver plate
and sterling is. Silver plate is produced by bonding an extremely thin layer of silver to a
base metal such as copper, brass or nickel. The amount of silver involved is so small that
these pieces have no scrap value. The cost of reclaiming the silver from the base metal
would be more expensive than the value of the silver. For this reason, with the exception
of exceedingly unusual items or items made by very good quality makers, silverplated
items are generally much less valuable than their sterling silver counterparts.
In contrast, sterling silver is 92.5% pure silver. Sterling silver can be melted and the pure
silver recovered fairly inexpensively. Thus, sterling silver items have an inherent metal
value in addition to the value of their craftsmanship, form, functionality, provenance, etc.
There is good news and bad news when it comes to recognizing silver plate. The good
news is that nearly every piece of American silver plated hollowware and flatware are
stamped with a mark which indicates that it is not sterling. The bad news is that there are
quite a few different marks to indicate this, and their significance is not always obvious.
Here are some of the more common marks indicating silver plate:
EPNS (electroplated nickel silver)
Silver on Copper
Triple Plate (or 3x)
Quadruple Plate (or 4x)
EP on Silver
Any of the above marks clearly indicates that a piece is silver plated. The word ‘Sterling’
will not appear on a silver plated piece. You will never see a ‘Sterling Plated’ mark.
Incidentally, you may find contemporary jewelry advertised as ‘Layered in Precious
Sterling Silver’. This is nothing more than a marketing scheme to try to get you to buy
a silver plated item, thinking that it is sterling silver. These pieces are silver plate, plain
and simple, and contain no sterling silver whatsoever. Don’t be fooled!
American sterling silver pieces are almost always stamped ‘Sterling’ or ‘925’. Many
reference guides state that all American sterling silver made after 1850 must bear
a ‘Sterling’ mark. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. For starters, it took several years for this law to go into effect in all parts of the country. Furthermore, even pieces that were stamped with legitimate sterling marks at the time of production can lose those marks over time. Perhaps the original marks were poorly struck or worn down by years of use, or maybe the marks were obliterated by a repair. In these cases, you will need to test the content of the silver to determine if it is sterling or silver plate.
The oldest and most commonly used method for testing silver content is the acid test.
This is done by taking a small filing from your item and applying test acid to it. Choose
an inconspicuous place to do the filing. You must file deep enough to get below the level
of the plating; if you apply the test acid directly to the surface of a silver plated piece it
will test as sterling. If the acid changes color upon contact with the filings, then the silver
is not sterling silver standard (92.5% pure). It may be a lower silver grade of silver such
as 800 purity or it may be silver plate, but it is not sterling silver.
Using these tips you’ll be prepared to find a “sleeper” of your own. Good luck to you as