Antique collectors refer to spoons and forks used on the dining table as flatware. Silver flatware dates back as far as the 16th century, while silverplate pieces arrived with the advent of new plating techniques in the 1740s. There often isn't a discernible difference between silverplate and sterling flatware items. However, a closer look will reveal small, but significant, differences. Sterling can be much more valuable than silverplate.
Silverplate flatware differs from sterling in its silver content. Silverplate is usually made from a base metal, such as nickel or copper, with a thin layer of silver on the surface. From the mid-19th century, silver was applied using electrolysis. Generally, silverplate flatware is worth less than sterling items. However, some silverplate flatware is sought after. Old Sheffield Plate is an early and rare form of plate silver. Spoons and forks in this style can date back to the 1700s. Some forks and spoons are marked with the acronyms "EPBM" or "EPNS" to indicate they are electroplated silver.
The name sterling applies to items with 92.5 per cent silver content. Many American sterling flatware items have the name "Sterling" or the digits "925" pressed into the metal for identification. Sterling flatware from England may have the Lion Passant hallmark--a stamp in the shape of a lion that denotes sterling quality.
Most sterling silver flatware items are hallmarked. Hallmarks are words, letters, numbers or images pressed into the surface of the metal. Marks may relate to the original maker, the city where produced and the date of manufacture. Some markers command higher prices than others, and older dates tend to result in higher value. Silverplate items are not always hallmarked. Old Sheffield Plate and specialist silverplate such as Christofle have various hallmarks. More recent reproduction Sheffield Plate is usually marked "Silver on Copper" and is worth far less than the original.
In the case of both silverplate and sterling silver, condition affects value. Pieces with obvious repairs such as solder joins between the stem and head sell for less. Rips and dents also devalue flatware. Silverplate forks and spoons where the plate has worn away to reveal the base metal are far less desirable.
Silverplate and sterling flatware values fluctuate over time. You can get a good idea of current values by checking recent sale prices in auction houses. Larger auctioneers such as Sotheby's and Christie's often reveal sale prices on company websites. Look for specialist silver auctions. Annual price guides also provide a snapshot of silver values. Miller's Antiques and Collectables is an example of a popular online price guide.