Today I am cleaning some old silver I recently picked up at a secondhand shop. There are four pieces to be cleaned. First is a silverplate creamer made by Wallace in pattern # 9024, very nice overall condition, badly tarnished.
Second are vintage silverplate (90) dinner knife and fork in the same pattern (the pattern name I have not yet identified) made by V.S.F. or Vereinigte Silberwarenfabriken or United Silverwaremakers, of Dusseldorf, Germany. These have seen some wear, particularly the knife, and are fairly tarnished.
And, finally, a real surprise, an English solid sterling silver fiddle handle dinner fork! It was tucked innocently in a plastic bag with a bunch of stainless flatware. The hallmarks indicate it was made in London in 1844 by a maker with the initials LS. I have not been able to identify the maker’s name. The fork is quite substantial, weighing 80 grams, and worth about $36 weight-wise at current sterling prices. I suspect its age will help bring a higher price at auction. The tines have some wear, reducing the value.
Dealing in vintage and antique items resale occasionally brings pieces of silverplate or solid silver into my possession. Over the years I have learned a few things about proper care of old silver.
Sometimes a seller, mostly online, will tout the “patina” of the silver item they have to offer. What they mean is the thing is badly tarnished. Some pieces are nearly black. This is not patina, this is oxidation. Tarnish on old (or new) silver is not desirable except in a very limited way.
The proper patina on old silver is a very good feature. It is what a discriminating buyer is looking for. Silver patina consists of a multitude of tiny scratches and scuffs acquired over many years of use. These add up to a softening of the brightness of the surface, the finish is no longer mirror. Such wear should not be too deep. Deep scratches are not desirable. Wear that removes silverplate to the base metal beneath is unwanted. The scuffs plus the right amount of tarnish are the real patina.
The right amount, much sought after, tarnish on silver is the black that slowly fills the crevices in pattern details, making the engraved or cast features stand out from the surface. In general, silver should be polished to remove tarnish down to just what clings in the crevices. The rest of the surface should be as bright a metal color as can be achieved given the wear.
When I first began acquiring old silver and came across blackened flatware or hollowware, I made the mistake of using a liquid chemical cleaner to remove oxidation. The liquid does a great job of clearing tarnish, but it takes everything right down to the crevices and hollows of the details. A chemically cleaned piece appears nearly showroom bright with hard to discern pattern details. Over time oxidation will recur in the detailing, but it is a slow process. Such a heavily cleaned piece is not totally ruined, but its value is temporarily reduced.
For collectors of sterling silver jewelry, for instance spoon rings and turquoise Native American handmade pieces, the patinization of the details is very important. This contrast of silver and black is highly prized. A purported old piece of silver without the tarnish in the hollows is suspect. Sometimes I purchase an old turquoise ring for my personal collection that needs to be sized. I am careful to stipulate to the jeweler NOT to polish the piece. I learned to do this the hard way after my vintage ring with lovely patina was returned to me freshly cleaned and polished, gleaming like new.
I don’t often endorse products, but have found one worth sharing. A bit of serendipity brought me to this amazing cleaner that easily removes the worst tarnish from silver without destroying the patina. They are called Cape Cod Polishing Cloths and consist of a soft, felted material impregnated with an oil. This oil allows tarnish to only be removed mechanically, by rubbing. If the cloth does not touch the spot, the tarnish remains. The black in the hollows is preserved, not chemically stripped away.
This silver polishing product is now my go-to cleaner. It works on all metals, clearing stains and oxidized areas. Old gold, pewter, Armetale and stainless can be restored to their original beauty. The best part is the cleaner works without a lot of endless rubbing and hard work. I can’t say enough about how much I love my Cape Cod cloths. They have made my life easier.
To polish a blackened piece of silver, first put on some exam gloves and protect the work area. Wipe the entire surface of the item with the Cape Cod cloth to moisten. Then lightly rub until the surface is cleared of tarnish. Rinse the silver in warm, soapy water and dry with a soft cloth. The piece may be further buffed with a jeweler’s cloth to bring out the shine.
The finished pieces have a soft glow that is only achieved through age. Nice quality tarnished silver pieces acquired for very little investment clean up to become attractive inventory in my online stores!