Victorian-era Dutch Silver Basket – A Lesson in Historical Research!

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:

Cute, huh?

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!?

 

Antique Norwegian Silver Shot Glass (1871)

I’m not sure what happened in Norway in the early 1870s, but whatever it was, someone felt the need to commemorate it.

I picked up this little silver shot-glass or beaker while I was at the local flea-market last week. It was in reasonable condition, it was cheap, and it had a lot of pretty engraving on it. It had a series of hallmarks struck to the base, but beyond the fact that it was silver, the seller couldn’t tell me a thing about it.

Decoding antiques can be a real challenge, and this shot-glass is a classic example of that. Even without the label on the item declaring it to be silver, I had already guessed, given the tarnishing, but also, the symbols stamped on the base:

Given the layout, the number of them, and the inconsistencies in the stampings, I deduced that they were hand-struck hallmarks, but not of any kind which I recognised. On a hunch, I bought the shot-glass, took it home, cleaned it up a bit and pressed out the dents, and then started researching the marks.

The cup came with a hand-engraved inscription on the rim, and translating this was my first clue. It read:

Erindring af mine Brodre“. Typing this into Google Search revealed it to be Norwegian: “In Remembrance of my Brothers“. After that, I started researching Norwegian hallmarks.

European hallmarks have a very distinct pattern. They typically come in groups of four, or five. A set of marks on a piece of silver will normally consist of an assay mark, a date letter, a maker’s mark, and a purity or fineness mark. Depending on where the piece was made and marked, it might also include import or export marks, taxation marks, etc.

The first mark to be uncovered was the seven dots in an oval (on the right). This was the assay mark for the town of Bergen, in Norway.

The second mark I deciphered was the ’13 1/3′. This was a reference to 13.3/16 LOTH.

In the 1700s and 1800s, European silver was divided into grades called lothiges (commonly shortened to just ‘loth’). Silver was graded according to purity on a sixteen-point scale. It started at 16, then went down to 15, 14, 13, 12, 11, and finally, 10 loth. Apart from Norway, the loth system was also commonly used by Germany, Austria and Prussia.

From top to bottom, these grades were:

1000/1000 (16),
937/1000 (15),
875/1000 (14),
812/1000 (13),
750/1000 (12),
687/1000 (11),
650/1000 (10). 

So, I had a roughly 81% purity, silver shot glass made in Bergen, in Norway. But how old was it? Here I turned to two more marks. One was ‘6M’, and the other ’71’. These stood for June (the sixth month) of 1871.

The last mark were the initials PD, which made up the maker’s mark. The trail of research ran cold here, but I had enough to know all the basic facts about the shot glass. It might be small, and old, and battered, but I think it’s beautiful. After all, it’s not every day you can claim to own a piece of antique Norwegian silver!

 

 

Buried Treasure: My Very Own ‘Armada Dish’!

Just because it’s what they do, doesn’t mean that they know it all! And if you’re patient, you can get your hands on a really nice, and interesting, piece of silver! That’s what happened to me yesterday!

Nobody at my local auction-house knew what this curious little…dish…plate…bowl…thingy…was. As a result, it sold for next to nothing, and I was able to nab it at a great price. I was extremely skeptical of the description of it in the catalogue, which simply said: “Sterling Silver Ash Tray“.

One look at this item told me that it was quite obviously not an ash tray. The shape was all wrong. And there were no grooves to rest cigarettes.  I mean you could use it as an ash tray…and you could use a Gucci handbag to tip horse-manure onto the garden…but that doesn’t mean you should! This weird little piece of silver made me wonder exactly what it was and who made it and why.

Unusually, it was a modern piece of silver. It’s from 1997, according to the hallmarks, and it was assayed in Sheffield. Researching the company that made it eventually told me that it was something called an ‘Armada Plate’.

…A what?

Yeah I’d never heard of it either, and despite a lot of research, all I could find out was that there were loads of these things for sale online in various sizes, some larger than mine, some smaller. But none of them told me what the hell an ‘Armada Plate’ was. So, I went to Wikipedia to find out…

The Amazing Armada Service

In the 1580s and 90s, a thirty-one piece sterling silver dinner service was amassed by Sir Christopher Harris, and his wife Mary. Among other things, Sir Christopher was an MP, and Vice-Admiral for the county of Devon, and was charged with the protection of Devon by attacks from the sea.

The service became known as the ‘Armada Service’ because it was made to commemorate the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588. The date-letters on the silver plates and platters range from the 1580s up to around 1601.

Either way, the famous, 31-piece service was a point of pride for the Harris family – Sir Christopher after all, was familiar with both Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh, so he definitely moved in some pretty impressive circles!

What is known is that the service was passed down through the Harris family until 1645. At the time of the English Civil War, the service was buried to hide it from the Cromwellian puritans, who needed silver for their war-effort. It remained hidden for nearly two centuries, until it was rediscovered in 1827 by farm-laborers who, of all things, were digging a hole to store potatoes!

The service was returned to the Harris family, who took custody of it for over fifty years, until it was sold at auction in 1885…by which time it had dropped from 31 pieces to 26 pieces…exactly what happened to the other five is unknown.

Either way, the pieces were sold at auction in 1885, and again some decades later, in 1910. In 1992, the 26-piece service was acquired by (and remains with) the British Museum.

But what happened to the other pieces?

Funnily enough – some of them have been discovered!

Through means unknown, some of them had ended up in the States! This was only discovered in 2009! This means that there is now a 28-piece Armada service in the world. However, the last three pieces, to make it the complete 31 once more, are still missing…

The Little Silver Plate

Alright, that was really interesting…but what’s that got to do with a little silver plate?

Well actually, the Armada Service is so famous, not just for its size, age and the fact that part of it is still missing, but because it represented a high-point of late-Elizabethan silversmithing. Its simple style and beauty, and the fact that it’s survived this long largely intact, have made it an object of fascination, and therefore, highly desirable.

Modern copies of individual pieces from the Armada Service are actively manufactured today by British silversmiths, and you can buy them online relatively easily, in sizes anywhere from a couple of inches, all the way up to seven inches in diameter! My own little plate is 3.75 inches across. It may not be a piece of 400-year-old Elizabethan silver, but it’s fun to own something that pays homage to one of the most famous silver-collections in the world!

 

Georgian Scent-Box – My Antique Silver Vinaigrette

In going back over the hundreds of posts I’ve made in this blog since I started it in 2009, which is coming onto eight years ago (yikes!), I suddenly realised that I’d never done one about one of my most-prized antiques. My teeny little vinaigrette box. So that’s what we’re covering today! Here it is:

This thing is really small. I mean really, really, really small! You could pack four or five of these into a standard matchbox without much trouble at all. That’s how tiny it is! The entire thing is solid sterling silver, and it is indeed, very old. It is the oldest piece of antique silver which I currently own, and almost certainly the smallest. So, what is it?

Antique Vinaigrettes

Vinaigrette-boxes, or simply just vinaigrettes were very popular during the 17-and-1800s, from the early Georgian era up through the end of the Victorian era. They were almost always little silver boxes, with gilt interiors, with pierced grilles and little sponges inside.

The sponges held a mixture of perfume or essential oils mixed with a drop or two of vinegar. This mixture created a sweet-smelling but also pungent aroma, designed to mask the stench of unwashed bodies, horse-manure, coal-smoke and other nasal assaults common during the 18th and 19th centuries. Since vinegar is acidic, vinaigrettes were always gilt (gold-lined or gold-plated) to prevent the acid from burning through the silver with which the boxes were made.

Vinaigrettes came in various sizes, from minuscule ones like this, to much larger ones about the size of a matchbox. They also came in a wide array of shapes, styles and designs. Those with strange, interesting, rare or novel designs are especially collectible.

The Hallmarks

This particular vinaigrette has the hallmarks of Thomas Spicer, for Birmingham, in 1823, and the duty mark of George IV, who reigned from 1820-1830. It also has its original sponge inside it! It’s a bit dry and crusty, but I didn’t want to throw it out.

Hallmarks on silverware change over time. Not just in style, size and shape, but also in the number of hallmarks. Knowing when different hallmarks were introduced and when they were discontinued is one way of dating a piece. This can be important when the item is particularly old, and the original set of hallmarks might have been polished out or unreadable. The duty mark for British silver was introduced in the 1700s and discontinued in 1890.

And here’s the vinaigrette fully-opened, with the sponge removed. You can see the full set of hallmarks here. Five in total: Maker’s mark of TS (Thomas Spicer), assay mark of an anchor (Birmingham), fineness mark of a Lion Passant (Sterling Silver), the date-letter (Z) for 1823, and finally – a duty mark of a monarch’s head (George IV). The TS maker’s mark has been repeated on both sides of the box.

The Fall of the Vinaigrette

Vinaigrettes died out in the Victorian era. When the soap-tax was repealed in the…1850s, I believe it was…it suddenly became much easier to wash onself, and one’s clothing. This moderate improvement in personal hygiene and laundry meant that for once, people didn’t stink so much. And if they did, cologne, scent of perfume was used to mask the smell. By the end of the century, the vinaigrette had pretty much become a museum piece.