Treasure: With silverplate, look for a rainbow

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

Silver can and should be enjoyed and used everyday, says Christie’s auction house expert Harry Williams-Bulkeley in a recent guide to collecting the material on the auction house’s website (

“Personally I delight in collecting silver for use in everyday life, such as a set of silver tumblers,” he mused in the guide. From candelabras to cutlery (and everything in between), Williams-Bulkeley favors taking the good stuff out of the cabinet and off the shelf and using it as part of a beautifully set table or just when you want to experience something beautiful, he says.

Among the many enjoyable types of silver items are traditional tea sets, says appraiser Brian Thomczek, who looked at a set that Dottie Holmes brought in for appraisal at a recent evaluation session held at the Michigan Design Center in Troy. Holmes said the set had belonged to her mother-in-law and eventually came to her. “Other than that, I really don’t know anything about it,” she told Thomczek.

Some of the pieces are marked “950,” which indicates purity and a sterling silver weight, said the appraiser. Some European silvers are marked 850; much of today’s sterling jewelry is marked 925.

Like many people, Holmes said she often has trouble telling sterling silver from silverplate. “Sterling should be softer to the touch,” explained Thomczek. “Silverplate usually has a rainbow-like effect in the finish, which indicates that it’s not sterling.”

Thomczek took a closer look at the set, which included four pieces and a platter. He started off by telling Holmes that the tray is not an original part of the set.

“This is silverplate, unfortunately,” he told her. “It’s an example of what we call ‘a marriage’ in the antiques business, where things were put together that didn’t start life together.”

The tray, he said, has condition issues and would be worth only about $85-$100 at auction. But he also had good news. “The rest of the set is sterling, but unfortunately I can’t tell you much about it since there is no manufacturer or maker’s mark,” he said. “If it were from one of the top silversmiths it could make a huge difference in the value.”

He estimated the four pieces at $800-$1,200 in a retail shop, less at auction, and dated the set to the early 20th century because of the design. He thought that the tray may date to the 1920s or 1930s. He advised that she keep the set in as air-proof an environment as possible and always handwash it.

“They were always sitting together and the design is similar so I always thought they went together,” Holmes added. She’s considering selling them.

“Next time you want to know if they’re sterling or plate, just look for the rainbow,” said Thomczek. “It’s a dead giveaway every time.”

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About this item

Item: Sterling silver and silverplate tea set

Owned by: Dottie Holmes

Estimated value: $85-$100 and $800-$1,200

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek