Verifying the precious metal content of silver flatware is crucial to determining its value. It can be fairly difficult to tell if silver flatware is real silver for several reasons. Many manufacturers market silverplated flatware. Silverplate is coated with a thin layer of silver to create the appearance of sterling silver and is popular as an inexpensive substitute. Still other flatware is made from stainless steel fashioned to look like silver. Just to make things more confusing, real silver flatware is normally sterling, not pure silver. Pure silver is soft and won't stand up under heavy use. Sterling is an alloy of 92.5 per cent silver plus another metal (usually copper) that is hard and durable. When people refer to "real" silver flatware, they mean sterling silver.
Buff the piece of flatware with a soft cloth. When real silver is exposed to air it forms a thin layer of oxide. Rubbing or buffing removes some of this oxide, leaving a black mark on the cloth. Stainless steel leaves no mark. Silverplate is bonded to the meal underneath and generally will not leave a mark either.
Inspect the surface of the item, especially the handle where it is grasped when used. Silverplate will eventually wear or chip, leaving the underlying metal exposed.
Look for a hallmark (also called a fineness or quality mark). Real silver objects are almost always imprinted with a symbol or number that indicates the silver content (for example, "Ster" for sterling or ".925"). Hallmarks may be extremely small, so it helps to have magnifying glass handy to find and read them.
Have the flatware tested by a jeweller. The standard test is to place a tiny drop of nitric acid on an inconspicuous spot on the item being authenticated. If the item is genuine silver, the nitric acid leaves a green mark. It's not a good idea to perform this test yourself. Jewellers have the tools and expertise to carry out this test without damaging the flatware or reducing its value.
Identifying a silver pattern can be important when determining its value, especially with antique flatware. A good place to start is online at silvercollecting.com, where you'll find some excellent resources to identify American silver patterns. Don't rely on the pattern to establish silver content. Many sterling silver patterns have been imitated using silverplate and stainless steel.