Sheffield and Silver Plate: What to Look For
The social background for the discovery of the methods of plating on copper used in the Sheffield process is quite interesting. It was a time of rising expectations for an emerging merchant class distinct for the upper class in England. These newly wealthy families wished to live with silver luxuries befitting their new status. Unfortunately for them, solid silver hollowware objects were totally beyond their means. Only the aristocracy could afford sterling silver tureens, vegetable dishes, trays and the like. But that didn’t keep the merchants from wanting these objects. In 1742 a discovery credited to Thomas Boulsover of Sheffield led to the Sheffield plating business.
Elegant Opaline glass & silverplated butter keeper, circa 1870, in Classical Taste by Joseph Rogers of Sheffield, England.
Boulsover discovered that when sterling silver is fused to copper the two metals are identically malleable. One could pound out a piece and have the silver and copper retain the same geometric ratio to one another as the metal was worked. This led rather quickly to the development of a very large industry based on the fusing of ingots of sterling silver to one or both sides of ingots of copper. The new merchant class—and down on their luck members of the aristocracy—could now have terrific pieces of hollowware that appeared to be made from sterling silver but were in fact made of thinly veiled copper!
The keys to identifying Sheffield silver are strictly related to the method of its manufacture and the need to disguise the underlying copper. Because the silver, not the labor, was the expensive part of the process, large pieces of Sheffield silver were tinned rather than silvered, on unseen surfaces.
Areas such as the inside of a meat over or the bottom of a large tray, even the bottom of a large tureen, will often be tinned, not plated. When you find such a tinned area on a piece you know for a fact that it is old Sheffield plate, unless it’s a tinned bottom added to electroplate with rolled edges. Than you have a fake Sheffield!
Another major characteristic of Sheffield plate is that all exposed edges must be covered with a rim of silver, otherwise the copper middle layer would show through, giving away the fact that the piece is not sterling silver. This is referred to as a wrapped edge. Either one of two processes were used: the applied silver decorative motif was bent over the edge; or a thin silver band was wrapped and fused around the edge. In both cases you can get a fingernail virtually under this edge. You will also find a seam where the ends of the strip of silver or applied moldings meet.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, most families purchasing large pieces of hollowware had their family crest engraved on the item. If you were to engrave a piece of Sheffield plate, the copper would show because of the thinness of the silver layer, Engraving shields or plaques were therefore inlaid into the side of the piece in the appropriate spot for engraving, If you blow air either at the engraved area or at the appropriate areas on an un-engraved piece, the engraving shield will “jump out” at you. This is caused by the differing rates of condensation on the solid silver plaque versus the plated areas. Any piece with an engraving plaque will invariably turn out to be Sheffield plate.
On any item formed out of a cylinder of metal, such as candlesticks, pots, vases and so on, the metal was joined together by crimping or dovetailing. This left an obvious seam, often with a little copper showing. Originally this was carefully burnished, but with a couple hundred years of wear and tear, you can often spot such seams. The presence of these seams is a guarantee that the items are old Sheffield.
Pair of late 18th century Sheffield Plate Candlesticks engraved with a shaft of wheat and inscribed with the Latin words, “Sapiens Qui Assiduus,” which means “He who is wise is industrious.”
There were many fascinating processes involved in the making of fused plate, well beyond those mentioned here. They do not, however, leave any telltale marks that specifically identify a piece as Sheffield plate as opposed to solid silver or electroplate. You can learn most readily about those processes by reading the major books that details all of the processes involved in the creation of fused plate.
The value determinants of Sheffield silver are similar to those for all antiques, but with some exceptions. Aesthetic factors are identical to those for similar pieces of sterling silver. Provenance and rarity also have an impact on value. The originality of the pieces making up a multi-part piece, such as covered vegetable or entree dish with a separate water reservoir, is crucial to value on Sheffield pieces, as it is to all sterling or electroplated items.
Anything made in multiples and of more than one part had each separate piece numbered in a series. Thus, you would have cover, dish and under tray number one, number two and so on. Because the pieces were not always perfectly compatible, the numbering system allowed servants to get the correct cover on the correct base. If the pieces no longer are three to three, or one to one, but are cover three with base four, then an incestuous relationship has developed, and the value is no more than 75 percent of a completely original piece. Marriages of work by two makers would have even less value, perhaps only 25 percent of the value of a perfect piece.
Approximately 90 percent of Sheffield silver pieces are completely unmarked. In fact, the lack of marks can often make one first think an item might be a piece of Sheffield plate. In the very early days a few makers put on pseudo-hallmarks to suggest the high quality of their goods. The guilds of silversmiths sent up an immediate howl and Parliament quickly established severe penalties for the hallmarking of plated wares. As the companies making Sheffield plate grew stronger, they began to lobby for some allowable marking systems, and the end result was that either the name or a small symbol could be used as an identification device. Because marked pieces are rare, a premium of 25 percent or more adheres to a marked price over an identical unmarked piece.
Regency period (circa 1810-1820) Old Sheffield Plate tea caddy. This pieces shows quite a lot of bleeding (wear to top of lid) where the copper is showing through.
Finally, and of utmost importance to value, is the level of originality of the actual plating. Old Sheffield silver is often in remarkably good condition with little or no bleeding (copper showing through). This is because it is the unique property of Sheffield plate that it is sterling silver over copper (not pure silver, as is the case with both close plate and electroplate). Remember, sterling is an alloy and the point of making an alloy is that it is hundreds of times more durable than pure silver: Whereas as pure silver wears away quickly with regular polishing, sterling wears away very, very slowly.
Related to this condition problem is the question of electroplating old Sheffield plate. Never do it unless the condition is so bad that the piece has no value as an antique. Electroplating adds a process totally foreign to the early piece, and it covers the mellow sterling with the more harshly colored pure silver.
In approximately 1840, the Elkington Company of Birmingham England, began production of electroplated silver. They had cleverly bought up all patent rights related to the experimentation then taking place throughout England in addition to their own work. This far simpler method—by which a completed base metal object is suspended in a vat, a charge introduced, and pure silver fused onto all surfaces—quickly put the old method out of business.
Electroplated wares are coated with a thin layer of pure silver, which, as noted earlier, wears away far more quickly than an alloy would. The base metal also impact on adherence, the preferable based metals being copper, brass or nickel-brass alloy (commonly called nickel silver). Britannia and other similar white metals are inferior because they lose their shape more readily and because they provide a poor base for the silver to adhere to.
Sheffield plate Corinthian column candlesticks, made by Hawksworth & Eyre, Sheffield, England, circa 1870’s. This is an example of electroplate.
Electroplated items lack all of the distinctive aspects discussed in the Sheffield section. They are commonly marked by their makers and usually have marks indicating the quality of the plating and the type of base metal. Marks commonly seen include EP (electroplate), EPNS (electroplated nickel silver), EPBM (electroplated Britannia metal), A-1, quadruple plate, triple plate, and so on. As with all silver, value is influenced by age, rarity, desirability of style and type, provenance, condition, and additionally, by base metal used.
Because they were competing with the old Sheffield platters who had earned wonderful reputations for the fine quality, the electroplating companies have often used the word Sheffield in their company names or as a descriptive adjective for their plating. Thus one sees on objects such words and phrases as “Sheffield, England,” “Sheffield Silver on Copper,” “Sheffield plate,” “Sheffield silver,” and so on. In each and every instance the word “Sheffield” on a piece of silver is your absolute, iron clad guarantee that the piece is electroplate, having nothing in common with the magnificent pieces of genuine old Sheffield plate.
— by David Lindquist
David Lindquist co-owns Whitehall at the Villa Antiques and Fine Arts in Chapel Hill, N.C., and is a nationally recognized lecturer, appraiser, author, editor and broadcaster.
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