A Collector’s Guide: American Silver

A Collector’s Guide: American Silver

From 17th century beginnings to the glories of the nation's Gilded Age and beyond, the history of American silver forms a fascinating narrative. John Ward, Sotheby's New York Head of Department for Silver and Vertu explains how new or experienced collectors can track down true gems of American Silver, why now is good time to invest - and the common pitfalls to avoid.
From 17th century beginnings to the glories of the nation's Gilded Age and beyond, the history of American silver forms a fascinating narrative. John Ward, Sotheby's New York Head of Department for Silver and Vertu explains how new or experienced collectors can track down true gems of American Silver, why now is good time to invest - and the common pitfalls to avoid.

M any fascinating items of silver were produced in North America, from the beginnings in Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century to the splendors of the Gilded Age, when America had the material, the manufacturers, and the market to be a major producer.
Stylistically, American silver can be broken down into two periods, the Colonial and Federal eras (circa 1650 to circa 1820) and the 19th Century (circa 1820 to circa 1914).

Colonial and Federal Silver

The forms of Colonial American silver - porringers, tankards, teapots – are bound up in the common vision of life in early America and the struggle of the American Revolution. Less well known, the shapes of the early 19th century paralleled the political classicism, as the young Republic looked to Greek and Roman prototypes for its democratic experiment.

Boston, New York, and Philadelphia were the main centers of production, each with regional variations which became less pronounced with time. Newport and Baltimore also made contributions, but silver from other areas of early America is particularly rare, and quite sought after.

Now is a great time to explore collecting early American Silver. A generation of collectors that came of age in the 1960s and was further inspired by the Bicentennial in 1976 is slowly passing, bringing great collections on to the market, causing a dip in prices compared to 20 years ago, and offering great opportunities for new collectors.

Entry Level

Jacob Hurd, American Silver Porringer, Boston (Circa 1760)

The prototypical form of colonial America, most silver porringers can be bought at auction for between $2,500 and $3,500, even by quite well-known makers. Forms such as small mugs and creamers are equally reasonably priced. The lack of a known 18th century provenance also keeps the price down on this example.

Collector level


This coffee pot is by one of the most important Philadelphia makers, and provides an impressive statement at over 14 inches high. It displays elegant original engraving and has a known early history, but the price reflects its date of after the American Revolution – a less sought-after period.

Exceptional level

American Silver Large Tankard, Simeon Soumaine, New York, Circa 1710 sold for $27,720 including buyer’s premium.

This tankard is by a major New York maker and has an impressively early date, just out of the 17th century. It displays a checklist of the most sought-after features on an early New York tankard: a base-band of wrigglework and cut-card leaves, early armorial engraving to the front, decorated cover (here with an inset coin), cocoon-shaped thumbpiece, and a handle decorated with applied castings including a mask. In addition to the known 18th century provenance, it also came from a significant 20th century collection, that of Mr. & Mrs. Walter Jeffords.

 Area of Opportunity


The very accessible market for Federal silver can be seen in the result for this six-piece tea set, plus an additional sugar urn; a startlingly low figure for this many pieces of handmade silver, crafted in 18th century New York. Tea sets are the most common forms surviving from early 19th century America, and often display handsome shapes and characterful engraving, but rarely bring much competition at auction.

Potential Pitfall

Johannis Nys, American Silver Large Tankard, Philadelphia (Circa 1710-20)

During the 19th century, when tankards were no longer used, many early examples were converted to water pitchers by adding a spout to the front. Always look opposite the handle for signs of a triangular-shaped patch or a pattern of drilled holes – signs of a removed later spout. This very early Philadelphia tankard, by an important maker, would easily have made twice as much money if it had not been spouted at one point in its history.

19th Century Silver

From about 1820, a new period of American silver began, as the young country began to expand and industrialize. Silver from the mid 19th century, until 1871, is often called “coin silver”, as it was made by melting down coins, rather than adhering to a specific standard. Particularly tea sets were made in large numbers in this period, successively in American Empire, Rococo Revival, and Classical Revival styles.

In 1870-71 Congress decreed that American silver should be made to sterling standard and so marked. The discovery of American sources of silver, beginning with the Comstock Lode in 1859, and the financial explosion of the Gilded Age after the Civil War meant that America was both a producer and a market for silver. By the early 1880s American design was coming into its own, as a fusion of native designers, immigrant talent, and Japonisme created a new style not dependent on copying European models.

With Tiffany’s achieving a Gold Medal at the Paris Exposition of 1878, Europe began copying American models instead. The great mansions of New York, Newport, and various industrial capitals displayed the tangible wealth of the new millionaires. This golden age of American silver, dominated by the firms of Tiffany and Gorham, would last until America entered the First World War.

Entry level

The Gorham Mfg. Co. American silver pitcher, Providence, RI (1871)

This piece displays the angular form and mythological references of the Classical style of the 1860s and early 1870s. Often of fantastic quality, this style is not particularly sought after by collectors (except those with historic houses from this period), and offers a wide range of forms at still encouraging prices.

Collector level


This beautifully-chased object is made by Tiffany, America’s premier silver manufacturer, and shows a moment when American design has come into its own. The mermaids hark back to the classical style, but are executed in a naturalistic fashion that owes more to Japanese design than to European prototypes, while the asymmetrical seaweed is an even more direct lift from Asian sources. The design can be attributed to Charles Osborne, an immigrant from England who was trained in America and helped create the new style in his work for Tiffany and Whiting.

Exceptional level

American silver and mixed-metal pitcher and stand, Gorham Mfg. Co., Providence, RI (1880)

Although initially conservatively estimated, this set saw strong bidding in response to its quality. As on the previous piece, the design combines classical motifs in the mythological panels with Japanese-influenced naturalism in the twig handle and spot-hammered surface. Here, though, it has been taken to another level by the use of coppered elements, another Asian-inspired touch. These pieces have kept their original dark patina, which shadows the depths of the chasing and brings out the relief; too often this has been stripped away by over-enthusiastic cleaning. Lastly, the set belonged to the son of Ulysses S. Grant, the Civil War general and 18th President, giving it an important Gilded Age provenance.

Area of Opportunity

American silver salad bowl with matching servers, Whiting Mfg. Co., Providence, RI (circa 1883)

At the time of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, the Whiting Manufacturing Company was highlighted by the French agents as one of America’s most important, following only Tiffany and Gorham. Their quality and innovation in the 1880s and 1890s matched their rivals, and Charles Osborne worked for them before moving to Tiffany. Their pieces, though, are less valued than those of the “big two” of American 19th century silver. Another firm, Shiebler & Co. of Brooklyn and New York, showed a naturalism that yielded little to any other firm, and similarly offers bargains today for its wonderfully creative work.

Potential Pitfall


Nineteenth Century silver almost always bore signs of its ownership – monograms, initials, and presentation inscriptions. Too often, though, in the early 20th century these were removed, leaving blank gaps right at what should be a central point of the design. It can be seen in the vacant reserve on the front of this Tiffany pitcher – otherwise fantastic quality, with its high-relief design of birds and scrolling ivy – and is probably why it was unsold. If you are still interested in a piece that has a blank cartouche or overly-polished side, carefully check that the metal has not been made too thin by the removal of the engraving, and be aware of the discounted price this condition should bring.

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