Sometimes, a little bureaucracy can be a great thing. For collectors of antique British silver, that is…
Remember in elementary school where they taught us to write a story by defining “who, what, when, where, and why?” I guess this is an age-old technique, because every piece of British silver has the answers stamped right into the metal—courtesy of a government official. These stamps are called hallmarks, and they are invaluable tools for the modern collector looking to identify her new find.
The British hallmarking system, dating back to 1300, was developed as a way to curb the practice of unscrupulous individuals debasing silver goods (gold as well). The government decided to test and mark each item coming out of a silversmith’s shop, to make sure it met the “sterling” standard of 92.5% pure silver. Over time, additional informative hallmarks were added. By the 18th century, a system of four to five marks was in use:
- Who: A maker’s mark is registered at the assay office by each silversmith, and is stamped on all of his wares. This is the only stamp that the maker applies himself. All the others are applied by the assayer.
- What: The assayer’s mark shows the piece was tested to meet the sterling standard of 92.5% pure silver. The mark is usually a “lion passant” (a lion facing left) but in some years/cities it was a “lion gardant” (a lion facing left but looking over his shoulder). In Ireland a crowned harp is used instead.
- When: The date mark is a letter inside a shield. By changing the typeface of the letters and the shapes of the shields, the alphabet was cycled through many times to make a unique mark for each year. (One small caveat: the changeover to the new year’s mark didn’t always happen on January 1st until it was standardized as such in 1975—different cities changed over in May, June, or October. It wouldn’t be a bureaucracy without a dose of the illogical, right?)
- Where: The city mark indicates which assay office performed the testing. In the 18th/19th centuries, there were ~10 assay offices across England, Scotland, and Ireland. And just for fun, each assay office had its own separate date mark system! (This was also standardized in 1975)
- From 1784 to 1890, a duty mark was stamped, to show that a special tax was paid. The mark depicted the current monarch: George III, George IV, William IV, or Victoria. (I know this doesn’t really fit as “why” so you’ll just have to throw me a bone here…)
To interpret the hallmarks on a piece of silver, you’ll need to consult a reference. Ian Pickford’s Pocket Jackson’s Hallmarks or Judith Banister’s English Silver Hallmarks are handy little volumes, or you can use an online database like this one or this one. As an example, let’s take a look at this charming little Georgian sauce ladle.
The hallmarks can be found on the underside of the handle.
If we zoom in and look at the marks (below), they are from top to bottom: the maker’s mark, the city mark, the assayer’s mark, the date mark, and the duty mark. To decipher them, we’ll start with the city, since the other marks can differ by city. I’m using the Banister book. Here we go:
City mark: The leopard’s head is the symbol for the London assay office. Flip to the London section of your reference (Banister, p.21 or here). The design of the leopard’s head already gives clues to the date, because the leopard had a crown before 1822. Ours has no crown, indicating this piece is post-1822 (p.26).
Date mark: We have a gothic “A.” Look through the “A” marks in the reference and compare the fonts. Then, check the shape of the shield. There should be only one clear match: here it’s 1836 (p.27). (Note there were two shield varieties used during this alphabet cycle.) A gothic “A” was also used in 1756 (p.25) but it’s in a slightly different shield, the leopard should be crowned, and there should be no duty mark. Also, we note that the leopard head city mark design and shield shape is correct for 1836.
Assayer’s mark: The style for the lion varies a bit between cities and years, so we verify in the reference (p.27) that this is the correct lion passant (including shield shape) for 1836.
Maker’s mark: The Banister book only has a select list of major makers. WT/LB is not in the book, but I did find it in larger online databases here and here. It stands for the partnership of William Theobalds and Lockington Bunn. According to someone quoting the exhaustive reference by Grimwade, this partnership lasted only briefly from 1835-1836, which fits the date of our piece. (I don’t own a copy of Grimwade so I was unable to look this up myself.)
Duty mark: Since 1836 falls within the years of the duty mark, it should have the appropriate monarch’s head as the fifth and final stamp. The reference shows us what the profile of William IV should look like in 1836, and indeed it is correct.
Et voilà! We now know this little sterling ladle was made right about 1836, in or near London, by William Theobalds and Lockington Bunn. Man, I wish furniture had all this information stamped underneath every chair, table, and chest of drawers…
I lamented in a previous post how most antiques become somewhat anonymous after being separated from their makers and origin stories by so much time. British silver is a wonderful exception. And that’s how bureaucracy can be awesome.
Of course, such a (relatively) simple method of identification presents an opportunity for fakers to play right into the system, and indeed this has been a problem for quite some time. To determine if your piece is genuine, you must think like a detective—all of the evidence should stack up properly. Here are some tips to consider:
- The real punches used to stamp the hallmarks were of very high quality, producing a sharp, bold image. Forgers often cast the marks right into the piece when making cast copies of an original, resulting in a much softer, cruder image. One caveat: the maker’s mark, since it was applied by the silversmith and not the assayer, is usually a little cruder than the assay office ones, but still crisply punched and not cast.
- The hallmarks should all have the correct image and shield shape for the date that it purports to be. If one or more is off, be suspicious. The active dates for the maker’s mark should match the year of the piece.
- If the hallmarks are stamped onto a separate little tab of silver that was then applied to the object, this is a huge red flag. The forger probably cut the hallmarks off a genuine piece, or mass-produced some tabs, and then “glued” them onto fake objects.
- Check the quality of the object: does it appear to be handmade by a fine craftsman or are there crude elements that make you suspicious of an unskilled forger or mass production?
- For nice antique flatware, you should be a little suspicious if there is no monogram or crest. Monogramming was an extremely popular practice. Modern collectors tend to prefer pieces without someone else’s initials on them however, creating an incentive for sellers to remove monograms (you lose a lot of silver in doing so, and it’s usually obvious) or to produce fresh, blank fakes.
- There are myriad other little clues that I suppose have to be drawn from accumulated experience and knowledge. For instance, a passage in the Banister book (p.15) mentioned that the placement of hallmarks on the underside of spoons were near the bowl until 1780, and then near the end of the stem, which fits what I see on my ladle.
My ladle appears to be genuine by these criteria. Hopefully I’m not blinded by excitement over the original reason I was drawn to it: the monogram has my and my husband’s initials!
I hope this article was useful and clear. I’ve only just scratched the surface here of all there is to say on British hallmarks and silver. For further reading, check out the following:
Banister, Judith. English Silver Hallmarks
Hayden, Arthur. Chats on Old Silver (eBook available free)
Pickford, Ian. Pocket Edition Jackson’s Hallmarks
Pickford, Ian. Starting to Collect Antique Silver
Silver Magpies (a blog and business by silver expert Nan who is awesome!)
If you have any questions, add a comment below or send me an email! Does anyone have additional tips for spotting fake hallmarks or fake pieces?