Irish Luster

Antique silver from the Emerald Isle is coming into its own. A guide to the market.

When it comes to antique European silver, the majority of collectors agree: Buy English. "It's not that they think it's inherently better," says Bard Langstaff of New York City-based Shrubsole, one of the top silver dealers in the United States. "There's just more English silver to be had."

But there's an admittedly small group of collectors and dealers (perhaps 30 to 50 worldwide, including Langstaff) who believe that there's an equally desirable species of silver worth grabbing now, while it's still available: that made in 18th-century Ireland.

"It's reckoned that for every piece of eighteenth-century Irish silver out there today there are one hundred fifty English pieces from the same period," says Jimmy Weldon, owner of the J.W. Weldon antique silver shop in Dublin, one of the two top silver dealers in that city. "That's not to say you can't find it. You can; it's just getting more difficult." Langstaff agrees: "There are fewer pieces of Irish silver than English silver, and fewer collectors of it. That makes collecting it more exciting."

Most collectors of Irish silver are American, British, and German. ("There's a handful of serious Irish collectors," says Weldon, "but in actual fact the Irish people as a whole don't appreciate Irish silver half as much as they should, partly because it has not been fashionable here to collect since people are concerned about burglaries.") And according to the experts we consulted, the thing that attracts collectors to Irish silver is its less cosmopolitan design. "There's a more provincial look to Irish silver," says Weldon. "Even vessels had different shapes than in England." Says Spencer Gordon, a principal at Spencer Marks, an antique silver dealership in Boston: "Silver is a fairly high-style item in general; it's very pretty and connected to the society that made it. That's especially true in Ireland."

The difference is largely attributed to the countries' respective national characters. "English silver, like the English themselves, is more classical, reserved, rigid," says Langstaff. "The Irish are more tongue-in-cheek—and their silver is more whimsical." Weldon agrees. "The English spirit is constrained, while the Irish spirit knows no boundaries," he says. "I'm not saying one is right or wrong. "Take Irish coffeepots. I had one that was made in Dublin in 1755. On one side it had figures seated at a table drinking beer; on the other side they were slumped over the table in drunkenness. You would never get that on English silver."

As for the 18th century, Langstaff explains, "it's when the most fine silver was made in Ireland and when the best artisans worked. It was before the industrial revolution, so everything was done by hand." (In the 18th century sterling-silver items were commonly referred to as "plate.") During that time, silver was considered an excellent investment by the Irish and English gentry, as well as a symbol of status and wealth. In 1747, for example, James Fitzgerald, the twentieth Earl of Kildare— and head of one of Ireland's most prominent families—bought a 200-piece silver dinner service (excluding flatware). "The banking system wasn't what it is today," Gordon notes. "Silver is a precious metal, and the aristocracy considered it their most valuable possession after their houses and land. It would travel with them from the city to the country. In 1770 some aristocrats spent as much as 4,000 pounds on silver for the dining room. That was a tremendous amount of money back then—considering that the average Gainsborough portrait cost only forty pounds."

When money was needed, the silver pieces were sold back to the silversmith, who either resold them or melted them down. "We had a soup tureen from the Duke of Leicester's family that was originally made in 1717, then remade in 1825," says Weldon. "It had gotten dented over time. So they melted it down, made another exactly the same, and used the old handles." But, he adds, melting down silver for money was not particular to Ireland. "The real reason why there's less Irish silver is that less was made," Weldon says. "Historically, the wealth of Ireland was far inferior to the wealth of Britain."

Another thing that draws collectors to 18th-century Irish silver (as well as English silver, for that matter) is that most of it is still functional—not the case, for instance, with porcelain from this period, which many would argue is too fragile for anything but display. "People can really use these Irish coffeepots," says Kevin Tierney, head of Sotheby's silver department. "The silver's pretty robust." Says Langstaff: "I think that ninety percent of the silver sold here is used. You can't break it, and with proper use rarely can you hurt it. Even then we can always repair it."

Irish silver from the 1700s is also, Tierney adds, "not massively expensive unless it's very early or elaborate, which you don't find frequently." True, a pair of 1717 soup tureens by silversmith Edward Workman sold for $113,740 at a Sotheby's sale, but it is more common to find tabletop items ranging from several hundred dollars for serving spoons and several thousand dollars for cups to $10,000-$12,000 for a fine pair of candlesticks.

The fact that the Irish themselves were not collecting Irish silver until recently also explains why much of it can be found outside of Ireland. "Much of the Irish silver left the country," says Tierney. "Some of it can be found in Dublin, but a lot is in London, and some is in New York, where it began to arrive in the early 20th century. Today Irish dealers come to the States to buy it." (Here we've featured Irish silver items from various Sotheby's sales, as well as one from J.W. Weldon.) "We buy whatever we can find," admits Weldon, who nonetheless has hundreds of pieces in his shop at any given time. "If something turns up in Honolulu, we try to get there."


What to Look For

Based on conversations with top dealers, we have come up with four cardinal rules for collecting Irish silver.

Concentrate on pieces made between 1700 and 1785. Before 1700 there wasn't much silver produced in Ireland because so few people could afford it. "Ireland was fairly unsettled," Gordon explains, "and it wasn't prosperous. In the eighteenth century things settled down and there was a growth of the Irish and English land-owning class." Consequently, the output of Irish silver increased as the century went on. The good times were dealt a severe blow in 1807, when England dissolved the Irish parliament, causing many of the wealthy English and Irish to move from Dublin to London. By the mid-19th century Irish and English silver had become, states Langstaff, "a mishmash of all sorts of ideas—revivals of the Gothic, the neoclassic, the rococo—plus, silversmiths began to copy older designs, but not very well."

Don't specialize in works of particular silversmiths or from particular areas. Even among the finest silversmiths—according to dealers, the short list consists of John Hamilton, Robert Calderwood, David King, Joseph Walker, and Thomas Bolton (considered by many the greatest of all)—there was an overall consistency of design based upon fashion. Says Weldon: "Irish silversmiths were constrained by fashion and more or less had to produce things in the decorative styles that were popular at the time. Then there's the practical nature of silver, and the way it is tied to social customs. When those customs changed, the use of silver items that went with them, such as soup tureens or brandy saucers, died out." Gordon concurs: "The scope for individual creativity was not enormous."

In addition, there was less custom work done in Ireland than in England, so it is rare to find a particular piece that was made for a given family; such pieces are the norm in English silver. "Because there was so much money in London," says Langstaff, "wealthy people often asked silversmiths to design complete services just for them. In general that was not the case in Ireland." Says Kevin Tierney: "The limited amount of Irish silver available suggests that it would be difficult to restrict yourself to one or two makers." That's not to say, however, that some silver collectors don't try. "There are people who collect pieces from certain silversmiths," says Weldon. "I can think of a few who have a specific interest in Thomas Bolton."

Focus on pieces dating from the first half of the 18th century if you want simplicity of design. The hallmark of Irish silver from 1700 to 1740 is a lack of detailing. Surfaces were generally left plain; decoration was limited to highly symmetrical crests and coats of arms, which were often enclosed by ornamental cartouches with foliates and scroll borders. "Plainness was the fashion," states Weldon. "The absence of decoration doesn't prove the inadequacy of the silversmith." The problem is that pieces from this period are rare—and consequently the prices are high. "It's quite difficult to find things from the earlier periods," says Weldon, who prefers them. "Plus, these days more and more collectors are focusing on them."

In particular, silver items from this period that are related to drinking tea often fetch particularly high prices at auction. "We sold one from 1717 that went for approximately 50,000 Irish pounds," says Weldon. "It was pear-shaped, and there are only about eight to ten extant." Had that silver teapot been made around 1740 it would be even rarer, he adds, because porcelain teapots had come into fashion around 1730, which caused a drop in the output of silver ones. (Silver teapots came back into vogue in Ireland ca. 1780.)

On the other hand, search out pieces from 1740 to 1770—the rococo—if you prefer a lot of surface decoration or particularly Irish imagery. In the 1740s, Tierney says, "Ireland eagerly took to the rococo." It is also when Irish silversmithing reached its zenith in terms of specifically Irish design. "You find great expressions of the Irish ideal in silver of this period," says Gordon. "There's a wonderful style of repoussé work that's unique to Ireland, and that shows the beautiful Irish countryside." (Repoussé is a form of high-relief chasing.)

During the rococo, in addition to the already standard forms, there appeared sugar baskets, soup tureens, nutmeg graters ("These really appeared around 1770," says Weldon), sets of saltcellars, and dish rings on which hot dishes were placed; this last item is thought to be especially Irish and is much sought after by silver collectors. Images, including chinoiserie figures, birds, and landscapes ("I have a wonderful coffeepot with two Chinese gentlemen sitting at tea on one side, and a figure on a parapet on the other side," says Weldon), were applied in the form of flat chasing and repoussé, accompanied by pierced decorations and engraved coats of arms (see Glossary).

But often, as Tierney puts it, "rococo is a bit bizarre in Irish hands. They tend to take classical scenes and localize them. An obelisk becomes a round Irish tower. And a cow, which was symbolic of ideal bucolic country life, or a milkmaid will appear to bring it into the vernacular, all of which adds to its charm." Says Langstaff: "There is a definite pattern to Irish rococo. You find harp-shaped handles on cups and covers. And they liked genre scenes a lot, especially farm animals, milkmaids, and small houses with smoke rising from their chimneys."

A key feature in Irish rococo silver is asymmetry. "Asymmetry is core to rococo," says Tierney, "but you frequently have to search for it." As an example Tierney indicates an Irish rococo coffeepot chased with flowers, fruit, and cabbage roses, as well as engraved with a cat, the family crest, all enclosed in a cartouche. "The crest has been casually put to one side," Tierney notes. "In an English design it would be in a more prominent position." Says Weldon: "The old traditional way of telling an Irish rococo coffeepot from an English one is that the decoration on the Irish pot is different from one side of the pot to the other. In England they repeat the design."


What's it Worth?

When it comes to determining prices for Irish silver, the same rules come into play as for other types of silver. "Scarcity is a factor in the price," says Weldon, "but really it depends on just how good a piece is. That means something in crisp condition with clear marks, good color, and good design." Much of the value also depends on establishing the date of manufacture, usually done by matching features such as the shape and design to various hallmarks (see On the Mark) normally placed along the bottom or near the top of the piece. In some cases the item itself betrays the approximate date of manufacture. Square salvers, for instance, were made in Dublin only from 1725 to 1740.

One of the greatest challenges is determining whether the date of manufacture matches the surface decoration date. "You always have to question whether it's original eighteenth-century decoration or if it was added in the nineteenth century," says Tierney. "During the eighteenth century, silversmiths left plain areas to set off the chasing. The Victorians, however, abhorred a vacuum, so they often had decorations added all over."

Gordon concurs. "The decoration on eighteenth-century Irish silver has a more open, fluid motion. You'll find C scrolls and foliage that are moving around the piece on a flat, unfilled plane. The decoration flows out and flies into the air almost frivolously. The decoration on nineteenth-century pieces pulls back into itself. It's much fuller and is static, and the decoration is filled in, meaning it covers more space. There's often a completely stippled or matted background. When you see enough of this stuff, the difference starts making sense. After ten years you can spot it across a room."

According to Tierney, the best way to learn to distinguish between originals and copies is to "handle the stuff and talk to people who know." Here are some questions to consider before making a purchase:

Is the color good? Weldon says that the color should be a full, deep gray and also more matte than shiny, as the latter can indicate that the piece has been repaired and then the repairs disguised. That's because once the repairs were made, pieces were usually polished to get rid of solder marks. "The silver should never be bright," Weldon advises. "It's very important to the value." Weldon also says you can "date the color by looking at it. An expert would know the color from the 1730s straight away. It would be much deeper and darker gray than, say, a piece from the 1770s. And a piece from 1690, as long as it has escaped undue repairs and polishing, which lightens the color, would be deeper and darker still."

Are there signs of wear? For instance, worn-down details on chasing or small dents on the body of the piece, both of which can decrease value. But don't get fanatical about it. "Condition is a big issue," says Gordon, "but remember that this stuff has been used. You have to be a bit forgiving. A little ding here or there is not the end of the world."

Has it been repaired? "Sometimes people repair silver or make it functional again by doing things like replacing a handle or filling a crack," says Weldon. "Instead, they ought to be restoring it, or bringing it back to the state that it was in before it was damaged. It's a completely different approach." Check especially the feet on hollowware or salvers and finials on coffeepots. Signs of repair can include dark-gray lines—actually lead solder—most often around the base.

One feature, however, that can be replaced without decreasing the value substantially is the handle on tea- and coffeepots, because they were usually not made of silver but of fruitwood, often apple or pear. "Few people mind if the handle has been replaced," says Tierney, "providing it is the right shape and of the right wood." As for tankards, says Gordon, "a restored handle isn't great but it isn't the end of the world. A tankard that's been turned into a pot by having a spout put on it—well, you'd want to avoid it."

Has the original family crest been removed? "People sometimes took off the original crests and put their own on," says Langstaff. "It's unfortunate because the area where the crest used to be becomes thinner or whiter as it loses patina. On flatware the area erased causes a hollow spot. That reduces the value."

If it's a set, are all of the pieces original? When sets—especially sets of dinner plates (see sidebar on George III plates)—were missing pieces, a later replacement was made to look like the missing piece. That makes the set worth less.

Is the piece heavy? "Weight is a sign of quality," according to Tierney. "People were charged for both the weight and the making. Heavier silver was more expensive to make. Well-made silver feels robust. And if a piece is light it's prone to leaking." Gordon agrees. "A heavier piece was originally more expensive, and wealthier people owned it—which means it was probably treated better over the years."

Of course an item's sheer appeal sometimes overrides rational evaluation. "Recently a gentleman came into the shop to look at a large pot for serving hot chocolate that was made in Dublin in 1706," explains Weldon. "There was no maker's mark, and it had a side handle—meaning that the handle was at a 90-degree angle to the spout, which makes it more awkward to hold. But it was beautiful, and the man loved it. He said, 'I must have it, to use on Christmas.' So he bought it for 15,000 Irish pounds [about $19,000]." *

Some of the most elaborate rococo design can be found on coffeepots, such as this George II (1727-60) model made in Dublin ca. 1750. (Priced at $2,500-$3,500 at Sotheby's October 1999 sale, it sold for $5,175.) Standing 10 and 7/8 inches tall, it is chased with images of fruit and flowers surrounded by rococo ornament, has engraved arms and two crests, and is crowned with a bud finial. "The engraving of the coat of arms is early, and the chasing is the original," says Kevin Tierney, head of Sotheby's silver department. "On the bottom there are the initials (PED) of the family for whom it was made. But we cannot say who made it, unfortunately, as there is no maker's mark."

"It's a quirky but charming Irish item," says Sotheby's Kevin Tierney of the dish ring (also mistakenly referred to as a potato ring by many), which was placed beneath a hot plate or bowl to prevent the dish from burning the table. Small numbers of dish rings can be found in England from as early as 1704, yet the rings did not make their way to Ireland until mid-century. During the rococo period, Irish silversmiths frequently adorned such rings with local pastoral imagery. "They were never intended as containers," says Bard Langstaff of Shrubsole in New York, "but today many people put glass or porcelain liners in them and use them as centerpieces."

Determining authenticity is particularly difficult with dish rings. The marks are usually on the base rim; however, older marks were sometimes inserted in reproductions to make a piece look like one from the 18th century, thus more valuable. "Such marks were taken from spoon handles," says Tierney. "Sometimes you can tell, but mainly you have to compare the date of the mark to the design and workmanship and see if they match." Shown at left is a George III (1760-1820) dish ring made by John Craig of Dublin in 1774, for sale on J.W. Weldon's Web site for 5,500 Irish pounds, or approximately $6,500.


Coveted Ring

"It's a quirky but charming Irish item," says Sotheby's Kevin Tierney of the dish ring (also mistakenly referred to as a potato ring by many), which was placed beneath a hot plate or bowl to prevent the dish from burning the table. Small numbers of dish rings can be found in England from as early as 1704, yet the rings did not make their way to Ireland until mid-century. During the rococo period, Irish silversmiths frequently adorned such rings with local pastoral imagery. "They were never intended as containers," says Bard Langstaff of Shrubsole in New York, "but today many people put glass or porcelain liners in them and use them as centerpieces."

Determining authenticity is particularly difficult with dish rings. The marks are usually on the base rim; however, older marks were sometimes inserted in reproductions to make a piece look like one from the 18th century, thus more valuable. "Such marks were taken from spoon handles," says Tierney. "Sometimes you can tell, but mainly you have to compare the date of the mark to the design and workmanship and see if they match." Shown at left is a George III (1760-1820) dish ring made by John Craig of Dublin in 1774, for sale on J.W. Weldon's Web site for 5,500 Irish pounds, or approximately $6,500.



A type of engraving in which the silver is cut at angles to reflect more light. Used mainly from ca. 1770 through the 19th century.

A raised design formed by making an impression in the silver using a hammer and a blunt tool. Also referred to as "flat chasing."

The use of sharp tools to cut designs into the surface of the silver. On 18th-century Irish silver, it was often used to create crests and coats of arms.

Decoration created by cutting shapes and holes into the silver, allowing light to pass through.

An exaggerated form of chasing in which patterns are in high relief.


On the Mark

As with English silver, the best way to identify when and where Irish silver was made—and whether it is sterling—is by the hallmarks. The Goldsmiths Hall in Dublin required silversmiths to place them on wares after April 1638 to identify the maker and date of manufacture, and after 1730 to indicate that duty had been paid. The one indispensable reference work you need in this area is Sir Charles Jackson's English Goldsmiths and Their Marks, which was published in 1905 and reprinted in 1987 (edited by Ian Pickford) as Jackson's Silver and Gold Marks of England, Scotland and Ireland (Antique Collectors Club).

Even with the work in hand, however, you have to keep in mind that hallmarks are not always a guarantee of authenticity. For instance, to avoid paying the high duty tax established by a 1729 act of Parliament that required silver- and goldsmiths to place a special symbol, the Hibernia, on their wares to show that tax had been paid (see following section), silversmiths soldered old marks into new pieces, especially teapots and cream jugs, or created counterfeit duty marks. And sometimes, says Kevin Tierney, head of Sotheby's silver department, "pieces have no marks at all. Watch out for these. It means they weren't submitted to the Dublin assay office."

Keep in mind, too, that with the exception of the maker's marks, every mark changed form, often from one year to the next. Here are some examples of standard hallmarks you'll find on 18th-century Irish silver:

The Harp Crowned Also called the Crown Harp or King's Majesty Stamp, this hallmark shows a harp with a crown on top. It was placed on silver items made after 1637 to indicate that the piece met the government's standard of sterling fineness. If the hallmark has an engrailed top, meaning that the upper edge is formed by a series of raised dots, it was created between 1738 and 1749.

Hibernia An oval-shaped mark bearing an image of the figure of Hibernia, the personification of Ireland, seated on a rock. (This mark was also eventually considered Dublin's town mark.) The Dublin Goldsmiths Company required it on all gold and silver pieces from 1730 on, to show that duty had been paid. When date-letter marks are not present on a piece, the shape of the Harp Crowned and Hibernia together are used to date it. "They should all have the Harp Crowned and Hibernia after 1731," says Tierney. "Date-letter marks were frequently omitted, and sometimes there's no maker's mark, making the pieces less valuable."

The Sovereign's Head Also known as King's Head Stamp. Stamped on English and Scottish silver starting in 1784, this hallmark began to appear on Irish silver in 1807, following a new act of Parliament that required it as proof that duty had been paid. Though it superceded the Hibernia mark, most Dublin silversmiths continued to put the Hibernia mark on as well. In 1890, the Sovereign's Head mark was abandoned.

The Date-Letter Mark Varying styles of letters were used from 1638 on to represent specific calendar years. (In London date-letter marks were placed on silver beginning in 1479.) Between 1730 and 1746, the silver assay office in Dublin required them only on spoons and forks; after that they were required on all silver goods. (the mark for 1726-27.)

The Maker's Mark The initials of the silversmith. They were registered with the assay office in Dublin after 1637 and placed on silver goods when they were sent to the office for quality assessment. Some silversmiths had two or more marks. These maker's marks belong to Thomas Bolton.


Detailed Analysis

Aside from a date-letter mark, the best clues to dating a sauceboat are its shape and its decorative details. When they first appeared around 1728, sauceboats were spouted at both ends, with two handles in the center and a single pedestal foot. By the middle of George II's reign (1727-60), they came to have one spout and one handle, which was frequently formed by three scrolls. They also sat on three legs, whose feet were shaped like animals' hooves, and often bore an engraved coat of arms in a cartouche on the side. Between 1740 and 1770 it was popular to place masks or animal faces at the top of the legs. One of a pair of George III (1760-1820) sauceboats with floral chasing from 1760, attributed to Dublin silversmith George Hill. The three legs are topped with seashells and the handle is formed from a double scroll and capped with a leaf. "Look at the fluting and the free-flowing sprays of flowers," says Kevin Tierney. "That's very Irish." (Priced as a pair at $3,000-$4,000 at Sotheby's October 1999 sale, they sold for $4,312.)


Tray Difficile

Dating a piece of silver is especially difficult when there is no date-letter mark, as on this 5.5-inch-diameter round salver (top right; one of a pair). They were designed for servants carrying small dishes or glasses. "There are, however, three marks on the salvers—those of the silversmith John Hamilton, Hibernia, and the Harp Crowned," says Kevin Tierney of Sotheby's. "The color, weight, and finish on the salvers is consistent, so I think they're originals from around 1740. The problem is that the feet should be marked too. Because they aren't, it raises the question whether they were added later." The absence of the date-letter mark also means that they're less valuable than they'd otherwise be, priced as a pair at $2,500-$3,500 at Sotheby's last fall. "With the mark on the feet as well they would have been priced at around $5,000," Tierney says. (They sold for $4,312.) The price of salvers also depends to some degree on the uniqueness of form. This quatrefoil salver made by John Hamilton in 1736 (left) sold as part of a pair for $55,000 at Sotheby's October '92 sale. "It's an unusual form," says Tierney, "and of extremely high quality."


Top Sources

Shrubsole New York;

Sotheby's New York;

Argentum 1 San Francisco;

Irestone And Parson Boston;

Spencer Marks Boston;

J. W. Weldon Dublin;

H. Danker Dublin;

The Silver Shop Dublin;

J. H. Bourden-Smith 1 London;

Koopman & Rare Art London London;