The hallmarking of silver for the purposes of quality control and fraud-protection has been actively practiced for hundreds, and hundreds, and hundreds of years, going all the way back to Medieval times and beyond. Largely a European practice, countries as diverse as Russia, England, Scotland, Ireland, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and Germany have had all manner of hallmarking systems which have lasted in their respective countries for generations. This diversity of hallmarking is fascinating, useful, and at times, frustrating!
European-style hallmarking, which typically consisted of a four-mark system, was established in the 12th and 13th centuries, gradually expanding both in scope and detail as the Medieval progressed. Eventually, the four marks which most pieces of European silver were stamped with became the standard: The purity mark, the assay mark, the maker’s mark, and the date mark.
Although there were attempts to standardise this system, the truth is that it varied significantly from country to country, and even city to city or province to province within countries, and even within a single country there could be several different systems and methods in place. Imagine what a piece of detective-work it becomes, then, when you’re trying to identify the marks on a piece of antique silverware!
The Piece in Question
Here it is:
It’s a mid-19th century Dutch silver candy-basket (what they called back in the Victorian era, a ‘bonbon basket’; ‘bonbon’ being the name given to bite-sized individual chocolates or candies). These were usually sold in sets (pairs were most common), although you can get them on their own. Little baskets like this, which come in all shapes and sizes and designs, were extremely common throughout the second half of the 1800s, and into the first few decades of the 20th century.
They died out when dining-habits and styles changed to something rather less formal, more like what we have today, but in the 1860s, 70s and 80s, baskets like these could be found on any number of higher-end dining tables tempting people with chocolates, after-dinner mints and candied fruits after their main meal of the evening.
Researching the Hallmarks
So much for the item and what it is. How about those hallmarks, eh?
As I suspected it would, the piece came with four hallmarks: A purity mark, an assay mark, a date-letter and a maker’s mark.
The easiest one to identify was the purity or fineness mark. It was easy to identify because it was what’s called a ‘Lion Passant’ (‘passing lion’).
The Lion Passant has been a symbol for silver in Britain for hundreds and hundreds of years.
Except, the piece wasn’t British!
The mark was a Lion Passant inside a hexagon, with the number ‘2’ underneath it. Typing this into Google revealed that it was actually a Dutch silver mark. A lion passant with ‘1’ is the higher grade of silver (about 93%), whereas the lion passant with ‘2’ is the second grade of silver, the more common (in Europe, anyway) 83% grade.
While Britain usually used the 92.5% grade (what we call ‘sterling grade’), most European countries, for centuries, used a slightly lower grade of around 80-85% (what some people call ‘continental grade’). This was largely thought to be for reasons of durability. The silver wasn’t as pure, but the piece made from it would be stronger and more resilient.
Having identified the piece as Dutch, the next step was to identify where the piece was hallmarked, and when.
Identifying the Assay Mark
it’s been the law in Europe for centuries that you cannot sell a piece of silver if it hasn’t been assayed (tested and marked) prior to sale. And that’s still the law today. Assaying and marking are traditionally done at assay offices. One of the oldest surviving assay offices in the world is Goldsmiths’ Hall in London…from which the term ‘hall-mark’ comes from!
This Dutch candy dish would’ve been hallmarked by officials at an assay hall just like any other piece of manufactured silver in Europe, and I was curious to find out where. Fortunately there’s a pretty straightforward way of finding this out: The Assay Mark.
Two of the four marks, struck to the base. One on the right, one on the left. The power of the lenses needed to help carve these microscopic hallmarks really blows one’s mind…
Dutch assay marks all rather look the same. They’re all the same mark: The head of Minerva, the goddess of wisdom, among other things. The way in which they differ is that every Minerva Head mark has a different letter stamped into it, to denote the town of assay. My piece had a microscopic ‘c’ stamped into it. This means that it was assayed and marked in the city of s’Gravenhage…better known by the Dutch people as Den Haag…or to English-speakers as…’The Hague’.
That’s pretty cool, huh?
The Last Two Marks
Unfortunately, finding out the maker’s mark wasn’t possible. The records simply didn’t exist. However, the date-letter was clear enough, and with a chart to hand, I was able to narrow it down to 1849, which makes this piece Victorian in era. I don’t think I’ll ever find out who made this piece; the maker’s mark was a ‘B’ inside of a shield cartouche, with two dots over the ‘B’, a bit like an umlaut – although I don’t think that’s what it is; umlaut are only used over vowels, not consonants. Either way, the details seem to have been lost to history. Maybe one day I’ll find out, who knows!?