Considering Coin Silver

Until the Stamping Act of 1906 was passed in the United States, the American world of silversmithing was a bit of a wild west situation. Unlike our British counterparts, we did not have an assay system for grading silver nor did we have a domestic source of pure silver until the Comstock Lode was discovered in Nevada in 1858. Consequently early American silversmiths created their wares by melting down currency and other existing silver items - silversmith's notices often solicited sellers as well as buyers. In our Collection of Sterling Silver Auction we are pleased to offer several lots of this early American silver work.

Silver is very soft and is therefore generally alloyed with another metal to increase its workability and durability. The English set the sterling standard in the 1300s, requiring that silver marked as sterling be composed of at least 925 parts silver out of a thousand. In the absence of this standard, or any other standard, early American silversmiths referenced the content of the coins they sometimes used to produce new pieces. Silver coins were composed of 900 parts silver to 100 parts copper alloy, only slightly less pure than sterling. American silver marked "coin" could therefore be assumed to have this silver content, although the market was completely unregulated.

altWhile some silver bears a "coin" marker, coin silver is more often stamped simply with a maker's mark. Coin silver marked with simple initials or an insignia, rather than the silversmith's full name, is generally assumed to be an earlier example of American silversmithing. The knife above stamped simply with a "V" is a fine example. Knives, forks, and serving pieces in coin silver are also rarer, as even the humblest of families generally owned a set of teaspoons.

altThis coin silver fork, from a very fine complete set of twelve, is an example of later mark. It bears the full maker's mark "T.W. Brown" for the North Carolina silversmith Thomas William Brown, whose work is represented in the North Carolina Museum of History.

The epicenter of the early American silver industry was in the Northeast. Brown, whose family was from North Carolina, was trained in New York, but returned to set up his own shop in Wilmington in 1823. Brown actually smithed his own coin silver, but according to Leland Little silver specialist Claire Frasier, "Much of the coin silver from the South was actually produced in the Northeast and then shipped south to be sold by dealers who stamped it with their own mark." Still, there are far fewer surviving examples of coin silver from the South and the West and those are therefore more valuable today than the more ubiquitous Northeastern silver.

In 1851 Charles Lewis Tiffany began to produce all silver for his burgeoning Tiffany & Co. in accordance with the English sterling standard. He started to stamp his silver with the "sterling" mark, and marketed it aggressively as being superior to coin silver. The American public believed the hype, other producers followed suit, and coin silver began to decline in favor, despite the negligible difference between the two. For modern day collectors, however, antique coin silver presents the opportunity to recapture a specific moment in the American tradition of decorative arts, through a uniquely American medium.

Content produced by the Leland Little editorial team