Sarah Shinn Pratt on Silver Collecting

Sarah Shinn Pratt is a Specialist in Silver. She has been in the antiques business for over 30 years, having worked for an international auction house for 13 years, and participated as an Expert on PBS’ Antiques Roadshow for ten years. She currently operates her own art advisory firm and is a member of the Appraisers Association of America.

What are some notable discoveries that have been made recently in your area of expertise?
I was very surprised to see an American silver-plated four piece coffee service by Wilcox Silver Plate Company for the International Silver Company, circa 1935, sell for $377,000, in Sotheby’s New York, June 11, 2014 sale, lot 77. Not only was it a coffee service which is a form that doesn’t sell as well as it used to, but it was also silver-plate. This was an example of great design and its prototype had been exhibited in a show of Contemporary American Industrial Design Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1934. The prototype’s whereabouts are unknown. Just imagine what that would bring!

What are your top tips for an aspiring collector in your area of expertise?
Silver designs tend to be ahead of the curve because unlike wood, the material is malleable. Learn all of the various art movements in history because chances are something was made out of silver during that time and will reflect or maybe even proceed what was or would be going on elsewhere. Go to auctions, antiques shows and dealer shops to view silver and see what sells and for how much. Always look for condition issues or signs of alteration. Learn your hallmarks by constantly looking up marks until you have memorized the most common.

What should a collector ask to identify an item and avoid common pitfalls?
A collector should look at a prospective piece and decide if the design is good and pleasing to the eye. How old does it look and which maker is it typical of? Then look at the marks to confirm. Is this a mass produced item or was it done in an atelier-like atmosphere? Does it have any historical value? Look for condition issues. With silver, you have to make sure the hallmarks are genuine. Were the marks cut out of one piece and put into another? To determine fair market value, check out auction results. That is the best way to find out what is selling and for how much. What a dealer is asking for a similar thing is a retail price which is usually far higher than “fair market value” and what the dealer would buy it from someone for.

What is selling best in today’s market (which particular makers/styles)?
The styles that selling for strong prices now are clean and sleek designs matching the interiors that are popular now. Georg Jensen, Tiffany, Puiforcat, Odiot, Sanborns, Gorham, Whiting, the list goes on…A famous designer working within or outside of a major manufacturer will sell well.

What other questions do people ask you most frequently in your area of expertise?
Q. How much is my silver worth? A. Let me see a picture or the objects in person!