Invented by desperate colonial silversmiths as a last-ditch method for use in practicing their craft, coin silver is a highly sought-after collectible.
Silver, a classic collectible, possesses ageless beauty that endures centuries of use and wear. It has a brilliant luster, an attractive quality that draws the eye and interests even noncollectors. So when you find that perfect piece at an auction, a flea market, or an antique store, it is safe to assume that if it looks like silver—and you know it is not silver plate—then, it must be sterling. Correct? Not necessarily. There is another possibility.
American coin silver is a class of hollowware and flatware made from colonial times until 1868. At that time, the United States adopted the sterling standard, which required silversmiths to use sterling that contained at least 925 parts per thousand pure silver. Prior to this, their canvas was coins.
“The term originated because at one point in time, people would use their coins to make silver. People had all this silver around, and as a way to preserve it, they melted it down and made it into objects of value,” says Liam Sullivan, spokesperson for Replacements, Ltd., in Greensboro, North Carolina.
With a warehouse the size of five football fields, Replacements, Ltd., is home to more than 10 million pieces of silver, china, and crystal. In silver wares alone, the company boasts some 20,000 different patterns from 900 manufacturers, much of it coin silver.
Although the term coin silver refers primarily to its date—anything prior to the adoption of the sterling standard—it also refers to the amount of pure silver in the mix. According to information compiled by the Society of American Silversmiths, industry giants like Gorham and Tiffany & Co. helped to forever alter the future of silver in America both in how it was produced and how it was marketed to then and future collectors.
“Occasionally, during periods of shortage, coins were literally used as metal stock, especially in the colonial era. Because of the multiplicity of coinage in use, it has varied from 835 parts per thousand to 925 parts per thousand. It was never an enforceable standard like sterling, but was a means for silversmiths, lacking a national standard of assay, to assure clients of the quality of their silver,” reads a coin-silver definition in a glossary compiled by the society. “By the 1820s, with flat-rolled silver stock readily available, it became an arbitrary benchmark set at 900 parts per thousand and remained so until the British sterling standard was adopted by manufacturing giants Gorham, Tiffany, and others in the 1850s.”
To verify the authenticity of a coin-silver piece—which clearly affects value—appraisers will often look for the silversmith’s “mark,” not unlike an artist’s signature. Some of the earliest coin-silver marks were stamped with “coin,” “pure coin,” “dollar,” “dollars,” “standard,” or “premium.”
The most significant group of marks, however, had come into use by the 19th century. Manufacturing silversmiths stamped their names and, on occasion, their town marks. One of the most popular ways to collect coin-silver items is by maker and town. Just as painters have adoring collectors, coin silversmiths have avid fans in today’s antique-coin market.
Today, American coin silver is a highly prized collectible. So, just how is the value of such products determined? One way to analyze the value and collectibility of coin silver is to examine three fundamental values: functional, artistic, and material.
The functional, or practical, use of an item focuses on whether it still can be used in the capacity originally intended. With coin silver, says Liam, that can vary. However, he points out that even if a silver piece cannot be used in its original form, it still may be of artistic interest.
Because the alloy (a mixture of two or more metals) varies with coin silver, usage may be discouraged, depending on the piece and the metals used. The alloy can also affect the artistic value, Liam adds. As an artistic canvas, coin silver typically presents a greater design challenge than today’s sterling, which is relatively soft by comparison. The harder coin-silver surface, he says, would have been more difficult to manipulate, making the effort of creating the often intricate, raised designs a greater feat for silversmiths.
That is especially true of coin-silver tea sets, which are particularly prized by knowledgeable collectors.
“Tea sets are rare because of their age, but having a harder surface, they tend to preserve well,” Liam says. The ornate designs typical of hollowware also increase the value and merit, he adds. “Though these tea sets are used more for decoration, the details in the metal just stand out when the light hits them—they attract the eye and can be a centerpiece for any room.”
While tea sets are at the pricier end of the coin-silver collectibility scale—often upwards of $10,000—less-expensive options are abundant. Spoons, for example, come in all designs, shapes, and sizes and can be the focal point of a beautiful American coin-silver collection.
For those wishing to make a modest investment, a set of six coin-silver spoons can be found on eBay, beginning in the $30 range. Moving up the scale, a set of six coin-silver spoons once netted $22,800 at a Sotheby’s auction.
“For a small investment, you can build a collection that can stand the test of time, that can be passed down to future generations,” Liam says. Value is not always measured in mere dollars and cents, he notes. “It’s more than just an object; it’s like passing on a little bit of yourself. ”