With formal entertaining almost a bygone tradition and precious metals at strong levels, it is no wonder that many people have cashed in their sterling silver flatware for money. And while it is true that gold brings far more than silver, if you have enough of the latter it can still add up to a nice payday. So, if you decide to go looking through your drawers for goodies to monetize, just remember that because a piece does not say "sterling", it doesn't mean that your item is worthless silver plate. Listed below are some things to look for.
First, the easy one: the number 925. Sterling silver, like gold, is often represented by a purity number. And as many - if not most- of us know, sterling silver's purity number is 925. Often times the "925" can be very tiny or worn almost smooth but if you see it, you have sterling.
Another number you might see is 800, which I have also heard referred to as "Russian silver". Many people think that the 800 is a dealbreaker but nothing could be further from the truth. The 800 simply means that the item is 800 parts silver vs. 925. It isn't sterling but you will still get close to the sterling price from a reputable metals buyer.
Lastly, you might also see pieces (and these will usually be 19th century or earlier) that are "coin silver". This is the term used for American pieces made prior to the introduction of the assay system in the late 19th century and as the name implies, the silver was the same purity as that of minted coins. As a general rule of thumb, coin silver will be about 900 parts silver so it is almost the same as sterling. Sometimes these pieces will be marked "coin" or "pure coin" but often times, they are unmarked. Instead, look for the distinctive fiddle shape of the handles and also maker's marks. Most coin silver pieces will bear the maker's cartouche and frequently, pseudo-hallmarks as well. These hallmarks often are meaningless since there was no assay system at the time and instead were added to make the pieces look like their more desirable English cousins.
Now, the warning flags: If you see the terms "German Silver", "Alpaca", or "Alpaca Silver" that means they are not silver at all. Instead, they are alloys that looks like silver but have no precious metal value at all. The letters "EPNS" means another dud... this stands for "electro plate nickel silver" and is just that... silver plate.
Lastly, if you can find no marks, then always take it along with your other pieces to whomever you plan to sell to. Some of the Scandinavian silver, for example, is sterling but unmarked so better safe than sorry. A reputable metals buyer will be able to test it in the spot and give you the good or bad news. Hopefully, the news will be good ;-)
The early 19th century saw the dawn of a great era of discovery in the natural sciences. Darwin, Lyell, and others advanced radically new theories that laid the foundations for modern biology, geology, and other fields. In France, one of the most prominent figures in this arena was Baron Georges Cuvier (1769-1832). Born Jean Léopold Nicolas Frédéric but known as "Georges" Cuvier, he is recognized today as one of the founders of modern paleontology. He was so prominent, in fact, that he is one of only 72 people whose name is inscribed on the Eiffel Tower.
In 1817, he undertook perhaps his most ambitious project, which was a four volume work entitled "The Animal Kingdom". In this work, he endeavored to catalog as many living species as possible and had meticulous engravings prepared for each described animal. The work was later reprinted several times but the best known of these reprintings is the 1834 edition published in London by G. Henderson. Since color printing had not yet been introduced, the engravings were often hand-colored and may still be acquired at very nominal sums today.
Speaking both as an appraiser and former fine art dealer, my own opinion is that these hand-colored engravings are still bargains if you are looking for decorative pieces with good history behind them. Look for examples from the 1834 reprinting with crisp color and minimal age-toning of the paper. Also, consider being selective in your subject matter. My own favorites are the exotic fish and birds... not so much the snakes and insects ;-) Nicely framed, these engravings are wonderful for powder rooms and small in-fill spaces where a painting might not be a good fit.
When the subject of natural history comes around, it often conjures in people's minds images of boring college lectures and nerdy "rockhounds" with agate bolo ties. And, having gotten two geology degrees earlier in life, I can attest that those images are not always inaccurate ;-) But make no mistake: there is a thriving market for important geological specimens... think "trophy fossils"... among deep-pocketed collectors.
Chief among the most sought-after specimens are dinosaur skeletons, especially predators like T rex. These skeletons can bring millions of dollars at auction, which is plenty of incentive to loot from public lands or bring in specimens illegally from other countries. China and Mongolia in particular have yielded some amazing specimens but also have essentially banned the export of significant vertebrate fossils. More than one dealer in the US has been caught trying to sell smuggled specimens and gone to jail for their troubles.
Another problem with the market for high-dollar fossils is the incentive to fake items. Morocco has been a hotbed for years of fake fossils, even down to the level of specimens that would normally sell in the low hundreds. China is another major source of fakes, especially small vertebrate fossils and trilobites. Speaking as a long-time fossil collector, I will share that I generally will not buy anything that has either country as a point of origin. That is not to say that some of the specimens aren't legitimate... instead, for me, the risk of buying a fake just outweighs the possibility of getting something good.
Even if you aren't a collector per se, fossils and minerals can still serve as eye-catching objets d'art or decorative accessories. Should you decide to add one or more to your decor, here are a few tips to consider:
First, as with a nice antique or piece of art, always try to deal with a reputable seller who can give you the relevant information about a piece, including any repair, restoration, or enhancement. By "enhancement" I refer to fossils being added to a plate (often referred to as "dropped in"), stained or painted in, or in some cases (hellooo Morocco) completely made up. Second, avoid specimens from "problem" sources like Morocco and China (see my previous comment). Third, research before you buy to make sure you are not wildly overpaying. Some items such as Megalodon shark teeth, have significant nuances in pricing relative to size. A 3" tooth may sell for $60 but a 6" tooth will usually sell for at least $400. With shark teeth in particular, size matters!
In closing, here is a link to a fascinating video that recently appeared on the Wall Street Journal's web site. An excellent look into the public-private debate and one that will give you an idea of some of the values being assigned to trophy fossils these day.
Bryan H. Roberts is a professional appraiser in Sarasota, FL. He is a member of the Florida State Guardianship Association, the Sarasota County Aging Network (president), and is certified in the latest Uniform Standards of Appraisal Practice (USPAP) Equivalent