With antique Irish silver in high demand internationally, we talked to two dealers to find out what pieces are most highly valued and sought after.
Weldon Irish Antique Silver has been operating in Dublin City Centre since 1890 and are one of Ireland’s leading experts in the field. We asked owner Garrett Weldon where the rare and exquisite pieces of antique Irish silver are coming from. “We have certainly seen pieces that have been hidden in attics for over 100 years, and people have only found them when they went to renovate. They find things that were hidden by their great aunt or by their great grandmother. Or, alternatively, there are items that go down in the family line, that people would know is the ‘good silver’.”
Horrifyingly, some people have found silver in stashes in the attic and have not recognised their value as antiques. Instead they have had them melted down to sell as just plain old silver. Says Weldon, “The antique value of the silver, taking into account its age and condition, could be worth more than the silver content, which would be comparatively low. You have to also factor in that Irish silver would be 100 times rarer than English silver made at the same time. So for every Irish tankard available, you’d be able to find 100 English examples.”
Weldon says that through the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Americans invested in Irish silver. But as Ireland has become wealthier, Irish people have had the money to collect antique silver pieces. And this is why the value is going up: with the internet, anyone can view the pieces from anywhere in the world, buy it online, and have it shipped to them. While Americans and the Irish themselves have always been interested in Irish silver, they now have the whole world as competitors for the products. Says Weldon, “The world is now very small. With the website, people can find you, you are contactable, so national borders aren’t as big a deal as they were. People buy items online without seeing it first, as long as you have very detailed photos online with good descriptions. These items can be couriered within 48 hours.”
So what sells well? “The highest quality items are selling the fastest. That is, excellent quality, condition and rarity. We have a pair of spoons from the 1660s which are valued at €35,000. Those are the rarest, earliest silver we have seen in 60 years. Think about how long they have survived – nearly 350 years. They are incredibly rare and incredibly early. By comparison, spoons from 100 years later are easily findable and plentiful.” In terms of valuable antique silver “flatware” it doesn’t get better than a trefid spoon. But what is a trefid spoon? Back in the 16th century, people didn’t have cutlery. They pretty much had one spoon which they kept on themselves and used for every meal. People who didn’t have a spoon had to use their hands to eat. But if you were lucky enough to have a spoon, and your spoon was made of something other than wood, you were really doing well.
The style of the trefid spoon originated in France; the French call it pied de biche which translates as “deer’s foot.” Legend has it that Charles II of England, while in court in France, noticed they used a specific type of spoon called the trefid. He immediately introduced it to Britain in 1660. Trefids became known as ‘the French fashion spoons’ and the style spread. People brought their old spoons to the silversmith to have them melted down and re-made into the new trefid style. In France spoons were laid face-down for table service. The design of the spoon is such that it sits easily facing down on the table. This is why any crests or initials are on the back.
These spoons are a remarkable find. Says Weldon, “With the first glance, a novice might not know that there is something of extreme high value they have, mixed in amongst the rest of the spoons. The great danger is that the uniqueness might be missed. Be sure to go through the hallmarks, check online, educate yourself.” The most common find in attics, according to Weldon, is tableware. So these are the things you need to keep an eye out for: teapots, tea sets, trays, knives, forks, spoons. All could be valuable treasures.
So if you are reading this from America, it is time to check out your heirloom hauls that came over from Ireland with your grandparents. Karen Rigdon is the Director of Fine Silver at Heritage Auctions in Dallas, Texas. Most pieces, she says, have come from American owners, having been brought over generations ago. “There is always interest from people with Irish heritage. The more exaggerated the forms and decoration, the more collectors are enticed to bid. Most buyers are fascinated by the whimsy and extravagance of the decoration. In general, buyers are looking for exceptional works. I am typically on the look-out for Georgian or Victorian pieces.”
What is the most expensive Irish item that Rigdon has sold? The George III Irish Silver Epergne, made in 1772 by John Loyd Silver, pictured above. An “epergne” or an ornamental centrepiece for a dining table, was typically used for holding fruit or flowers.
WHAT TO DO IF YOU FIND ANTIQUE SILVER
According to the Irish Antique Dealers Association (iada.ie) identifying a valuable piece is all about the hallmarks on them. “Since 1637, there has been a legal requirement to hallmark all silver sold in Ireland. This was brought in by King Charles I, and was intended then, as now, to be a form of consumer protection. The primary aim of a hallmark is a guarantee that the piece is sterling silver quality, that is 92.5% pure silver.” The hallmarks also allow one to tell by whom the piece was made, in what year and in which city. You can find a guide to hallmarks at iada.ie/collecting-irish-silver.
And according to Weldon, because Irish silversmiths had to register with the Dublin assay office, and submit an example of their maker’s mark; this has allowed people to research who made a particular piece, and when. “Many records were lost during the civil war, but various researchers have assembled lists of makers, giving us an almost comprehensive list of all the Irish silversmiths over the last 300 years. There are also several reference books which are very helpful, though sadly some are out of print and have become collectors’ items in their own right!” Good luck and may the silver odds forever be in your favour!