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Publisher Description

The study of old silver usually begins when the inquiring possessor of family plate sets himself the task of ascertaining the date and the probable value of some piece long in his family and possibly lately bequeathed to him.

With old china, and probably with old furniture, the taste for collecting is oftentimes an acquired one, but it is in the Englishman’s blood to ruminate over his old plate, and the hall-marks of the assay offices in London and in the provinces, in Scotland and in Ireland, have been placed thereon with aforethought. The plate closet is cousin to the strong-box, inasmuch as the coin of the realm and gold and silver plate have been subjected to stringent laws extending over a period of five hundred years. The technical word “hall-mark” has become a common term in the language synonymous with genuineness. The strictest supervision, under the parental eye of the law, has upheld the dignity of the silversmiths guarantees. Hence the pride of possession of old silver. Pictures and furniture and engravings whose ancestry is doubtful thrust themselves in the market{12} without fear of the watchful official eye. But old silver bearing the hall-marks of ancient and honourable guilds of silversmiths, stamped at the accredited assay offices, is, with few exceptions, what it purports to be. It is a proud record and a splendid heritage.

In dealing with the subject of old silver in a volume of this size sufficient details have been given to enable the collector to identify his silver if it be in the main stream of silversmiths’ work. On the whole, except where it is necessary in certain fields to illustrate the only examples, sumptuous specimens have been avoided in the illustrations as being outside the scope of this volume and the public to whom it is intended to appeal.

The collector of old silver must have a pretty taste and a fine judgment. It is not an absolute law that age determines beauty. Hall-marks, though they denote date, do not guarantee excellence of design. Everything that bears the hall-mark of the Goldsmiths’ Hall of London is not beautiful, whether it be old or whether it be new. The connoisseur must digest the fact that the assay marks of the lion, the leopard’s head, the date-mark, and the rest, are so many official symbols, accurate as to date and sufficient guarantee as to the standard of the metal, but meaningless in regard to the art of the piece on which they stand. The assay offices are merely stamping machines. What Somerset House is to legal documents so the assay offices are to silver and gold plate, and nothing more. Hence{13} the necessity of placing such mechanical control under Government supervision.

The excellence of a piece of plate is governed by the same laws which control all other branches of decorative art.

Rarity is a factor not especially treated in this volume. Rare specimens are not necessarily beautiful even though they be unique.

In covering so wide a field in so small a volume, much has had to be omitted. There are many volumes on old English silver plate, but in regard to research, the work of Mr. C. J. Jackson, “English Goldsmiths and their Marks,” with over eleven thousand marks, stands alone and supplants all other volumes. Every collector must regard this work as the bible of silver-plate collecting.

I have given sufficient space to marks in the present volume to indicate those used by the London and other assay offices. Some marks are given which do not appear elsewhere, and the arrangement of the tables should enable the beginner to come to a definite conclusion as to the date of his silver. In especial, the Table of variations in the shapes of shields in the hall-mark and standard-mark employed at the London Assay Office from the accession of Queen Elizabeth to the present day, is a feature not before given in so concise a form in any other volume.

The marks on silver are stamped, the design thus appears in relief, while the edges of the shield on which it appears are sunk. The reproduction of this has offered a difficulty in illustration in all volumes{14} on old silver. To print black letters or designs on a white background, although easy, is unsatisfactory. On the contrary, to print the raised design in white on a dead black background is not a realistic presentation of the mark as it appears to the eye. After many experiments I have reproduced the marks in a manner more closely approaching their actual appearance, and less suggestive of black-and-white designs on paper.

January 20
miao long

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