Identifying old silver usually falls into three main areas---hallmarks, design style and function. Accurately finding and identifying hallmarks is usually the most useful way to get an idea of the age of a piece. Both serious and recreational antique collectors should look for date, maker and location marks whenever possible. This can help you identify old and valuable silver objects.
Turn the item over and search for a hallmark or maker mark. Hallmarks are usually impressed on the bottom of an object or found near the base.
Compare the hallmark with listed old silver hallmarks. It's useful to use a mark guidebook, such as "Bradbury's Book of Hallmarks". Some marks to look out for include the Lion Passant for Sterling silver; an anchor for old Birmingham silver; a crown for Sheffield silver; a Tiffany stamp for 19th century American Tiffany silver; and the digits 84 for old Russian silver.
Check your maker's marks against old silver maker's marks. Old English and American silver use symbols for maker's marks. A little later, the first two letters of the surname were used. From the late 17th century to the modern era, the initials of the maker are generally used.
Look up the type of hallmark when dealing with English silver. Different marks denote different regions. For example, a leopard's head means that a piece came from London, an anchor means the piece came from Birmingham, and a crown means the item was made in Sheffield. The location is important for determining the date.
Search for a date letter. This is a letter used in old English silverware. The letter signifies the year of manufacture. Check a hallmark guide to cross-reference the mark to the date to find out when the item was made.
Assess the style of the piece. For example, old silver from 1760 to 1790 may have some neoclassical design elements, such as delicate engraving and beaded borders. Silver from 1800 to 1830 might have robust floral and scroll decorations, as well as twisted rope borders.
Decide the most likely function of the piece. Some items that were in use in older eras are no longer common today, such as cheese-warming dishes, salt cellars, tankards and gravy warmers. If the piece fits with a function from a older age, then it's more likely to be an antique silver item.