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 ;-)
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