C.G. from Lompoc sends me a plea – he has a Gorham sterling silver tea service circa 1922, which he had appraised in 1980 for $6,500, at the top of the silver market. It consists of a coffee pot, teapot, covered sugar and creamer. The combined weight is 63.65 troy ounces.
C.G. despairs of having this set melted down, and is searching for an establishment that will purchase, at a reasonable cost, for the antique value of these pieces. I am not surprised he's had offers for weight value only. The history of antique silver is also the history of a commodity. In February of 1980 silver was $107 a troy ounce. Today the figure ranges around $18 an ounce. In March of 2011, buyers WOULD melt silver down because silver was $40 an ounce. A client with a Tiffany Epergne that was too beautiful to melt down found in March of 2011 that he received more for it melted for scrap than if sold.
Silver, therefore, can be sold by the troy ounce or by antique value. How does C.G. determine antique value so that he knows a dealer or an auction house has given him a fair estimate?
During 2011, many clients stopped by my office to ask. The secret is in the hallmarks, and auction house records of that maker’s sales. Clients know that ethical appraisers don’t buy items appraised so clients receive an objective opinion. If you don’t want to pay for an appraiser, check out ValueMyStuff.com or Worthpoint.com. Or, send photos of your silver including the hallmarks to auction houses (at least three) for estimate ranges: Heritage Auctions, Clars, John Moran, or Bonham’s, for example. The ranges given, for example, let’s say $2,000-3,000 for a tea set, will give an indication of the current market estimate.
Where should C.G. not look to sell? My experience tells me pawnshops, coin shops, replacement services (for flatware, such as Replacements Ltd) are not interested in top dollar payouts for silver. Auction houses are interested in selling silver at top dollar but will charge a commission from 10 to 50%. Figure that commission into what you will receive.
My databases contain all auction sales results for all makers of silver, so let’s look at the recent sale’s records for Gorham made in the 1920’s, like CG’s tea set. A 1912 Gorham set at 67.22 troy oz. sold for $1,416 in January of 2016. A first quarter 20th century set sold December 2015 at 30.74 oz. for $469. A 1927 set at 70.35 oz. sold in November of 2015 for $1,280. A 1910 set at 71.96 oz. sold in October of 2015 for $1,020.
Now Let’s compare Gorham with a great hallmark known worldwide for its antique value, Tiffany, and see if the “antique value” is equal or better than CG’s Gorham: a first quarter 20th century set at 79.7 oz. sold July of 2015 for $2,400, a first quarter 20th century set at 129 oz. sold in December of 2014 for $2,000. Thus, the “antique” value of the brand Tiffany does slightly better than Gorham.
Now let’s take the two highest auction results of Gorham and Tiffany sets and balance them against the current $15 an ounce. A Gorham set at 70.35 oz., which sold for $1,280, would have a meltdown value of $1,266. A Tiffany set at 79.7 oz., which sold for $2,400, would have a meltdown value of $1,434. Thus, we have further confirmation that the market antique value of Gorham is not as great as Tiffany. Lest CG be tempted to take a scrap value, remember, the scrapper does not generally pay full silver value! A question to ask before scrapping: what percentage of troy ounce silver today do you pay?
Finally, C.G., check the hallmarks of your service for “Maker’s Marks,” which refer the designer. Some are very desirable, for example, William C. Codman, who designed the beloved Chantilly in 1895. If the piece has references to the most valuable of all Gorham silver “Martele,” you have something great. Also, C.G., take provenance into consideration, because the history of ownership is also a valuation factor; Lincoln’s White House tea and coffee service was Gorham, the Shah of Iran’s punch bowl was Gorham, and the Nixon White House flatware (3434 pieces) was Gorham.
Finally, two invaluable sources are Rainwater’s Encyclopedia of American Silver Manufacturers and Turner’s American Silver Flatware 1837-1910.
I estimate the auction value of your set to be a disappointing $1,200.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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