Buying and evaluating antiques is a popular hobby. Understanding and identifying what you have found can be the most difficult part of this process. It's also perhaps the most essential as you seek to ensure quality and authenticity. The sterling silver standard introduced in England in the late 1800s was the first widely used method for marking and evaluating precious metals. Various methods of identification continue in modern times, as all valuable jewellery is now stamped with some sort of mark meant to rate its overall value.
Look for marks on the sterling silver items. Check your silver based on the numbers you find. If marked .925, it is likely newer sterling silver. The .950 mark identifies older and slightly better-quality sterling silver, while .835 is a common European silver. The number 800 indicates 80 per cent silver and 20 per cent alloy.
Check to see if there are marks that indicate the origin of the silver. Many regions have specific marks that can be difficult to see or read. The "T" marking is a sign of a piece from 1970 or newer from Mexico. Most other countries are identified by the entire name of the country stamped on the piece. A "SIAM" mark will mean sterling silver from Thailand, while "PLATA" is an older Mexican silver.
Applying and heating a small amount of French's brand mustard will help identify silver due to the portion of sulphur found in it. A black mark will be left if the piece is indeed pure silver. Also, by learning the marks and figuring out the feel of certain metals, one can easily differentiate real silver from other metals, such as nickel. Real silver is heavier than nickel and has a much smoother surface. A magnifying glass or loupe will help you to see the difference in the various metals and detect silver plating versus real silver.
Study what marks are on non-silver pieces. "ALPACA" is a mark that will help you see immediately that a piece is nickel, and not silver. Any brand name stamped on a piece usually indicates non-precious metal or "costume" jewellery. Typically, these pieces are marked "SILVERSTONE" and are fairly easy to identify based on the general look and feel of the piece.
Figuring out the weight will help you to determine the value of your silver piece. Truly rare pieces require the skills of a trained professional. Contact either the owner of an antique store or a registered jeweller, who should be able to figure out what kind of piece you have in your collection.