Silver Teapot Analysis Paralysis
December 6, 2008 4:42 AM   Subscribe

I'd like to buy Mrs. Whuuuu a silver teapot/tea service/something similar but I don't want to get taken for a ride.

I know, to a first approximation, zilch about antiques, vintage, teapots, or silver. I'm not looking for a lost treasure by a famous master or anything like that, I just want it to look nice in that sort of old English ornate way, not be broken, and be made of silver. To clarify it doesn't have to be old, just look like an old teapot.

These are about the right style, especially the last on that page.

I think, based on Googling, that I want solid silver and not plate but that's all I know. I'm in NYC and I have a budget of up to a few hundred dollars for the right one. Really all I want is the teapot itself but if there's some unbeatable value I'll find room for the rest of a service.

It's for Christmas but we don't take it too seriously so if it just won't arrive by then it's not a deal breaker.
posted by whuuuu to Home & Garden (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Are you looking for an entire *set* or just a single pot? The only place that immediately comes to mind is Michael C. Fina on 45th/5th. They have a whole collection of Estate Silver on their basement level. I don't know whether they will sell individual pieces or will only sell entire coffee/tea services, but it's worth a try.

The other place worth looking into is actual Estate Sales (look in the classifieds of the NYT, etc.). The ads will usually indicate whether they are selling silver. My Grandmother amassed quite the collection that way. I seem to recall it was from larger homes that had Estate Sales in Upper Montclair, Glen Ridge, Summit, etc.

Good luck!
posted by dancinglamb at 11:04 AM on December 6, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks!
If by set you mean cups, saucers, the works then no, I wouldn't have space to keep it anywhere accessable and what's the point of that. I've seen "tea services" on ebay that are basically a tray, a tea and coffee pot and (I guess) milk and sugar bowls. That I could cram somewhere.
I'll try that store you mentioned next week.
posted by whuuuu at 12:23 PM on December 6, 2008

A quick Googling turned up this. There is plenty more, I did not look at offerings on eBay.

If you want genuine antique (e.g. British Georgian/Victorian) silver you should learn something about hallmarks. Can be learnt from books, but beware fakes.

Real silver will be heavy!
posted by lungtaworld at 12:35 PM on December 6, 2008

A few hundred dollars (say $300 USD) is not likely to get you a clean, undamaged sterling tea pot, no matter what the age, especially in NYC, which often has a %30-%60 premium in prices over say Pittsburgh. Even though silver prices have been off the past 6 weeks or so, there are no "values" to be had unless you are really walking the markets, know your stuff, and can spend the money. Tea pots are heavy and carry a premium on the value of the silver because they are in fashion and difficult to keep in good condition. My parents, who specialize in antique silver, sell clunkers (good condition but nondescript) for around for $300-$400 retail (between $15 and $20 an ounce). If one is ornate, part of a set, or has good hallmarks, they go for $400 and way, way up.

What you want to do, if all you want is a tea pot (don't care about age, make, etc.) is start going around to shops and comparison shopping. Keep this in mind: Silver closed on Friday at $9.46/ounce. Sterling is 97.5% pure, meaning the ask price for sterling is $9.22. Midwest Refinery (a good reputable smelter) is paying 94% of spot, meaning that you can sell sterling to them at $8.67/ounce. Pawnshops, antique dealers, etc. are going to pay you significantly less. Whatever you pay above that, and you will pay way, way above that, is for the non-intrinsic aspects of the piece. When you find one you like, take it's price and ask it's weight and do the math. If you are paying $60/ounce for an old, average teapot, you are getting ripped off. If you are paying $10/ounce, you are getting ripped off.

Just as a very rough guide, real American sterling is marked .925 or "sterling". British sterling has a lion hallmark. The variations are almost endless, but for what you are looking for those are pretty safe. If you buy, get a receipt that says "sterling," not just "silver". Take it to a jeweler, who can test it without damaging it for a small fee and give you tips on how to clean it without wearing away the patina.
posted by mrmojoflying at 1:47 PM on December 6, 2008

Do you have any British friends? Silver teapots sell at antique auctions for about £20-40 there (about $40-80).
posted by jb at 2:14 PM on December 6, 2008

Just finished talking with my father. He says that the average teapot (not heavy or ornate) is about 20oz., meaning you could sell it to a smelter for scrap for $175. You are going to pay at least twice that amount for the same pot at retail.
posted by mrmojoflying at 3:23 PM on December 6, 2008

A set would be a tea pot, a coffee pot, a sugar bowl, a creamer and a tray. For whatever reason, it seems that the hinges on the lids to the pots always seem to be wonky on the old ones. Either the pins are damaged, or gone all together (I think I probably have three or four pots that I inherited from my Grandmother and I know that at least one or two have messed up hinges).

They really are truly pretty to look at, but just know that they are a bite in the ass to polish. The pots also get REALLY hot when filled.

mrmojoflying, that's really interesting information about the actual cost (I was wondering about whether it would affect the market value when I saw the thread). But can you really haggle on something like this based on market cost of metal unless you're dealing with somebody like a pawn broker?
posted by dancinglamb at 5:28 PM on December 6, 2008

mrmojoflying, that's really interesting information about the actual cost (I was wondering about whether it would affect the market value when I saw the thread). But can you really haggle on something like this based on market cost of metal unless you're dealing with somebody like a pawn broker?

In instances like this, no, but, you know, cash talks to antique dealers. I think where calculations like this can really help the OP is give him a very good idea of where his money is going, e.g. either for intrinsic value or non-intrinsic. It can give him an idea of what the seller can sell it for anytime they want (i.e. the smelter price). Better pieces made by better makers are always easier to sell at higher premiums because demand always far outstrips supply, but a lot of times when silver is high like it is now, average pieces go to the smelter because the opportunity cost of keeping them around rises. So, while you are always going to be paying significantly over the cost of the metal as a retail buyer, you can tell whether you are paying dramatically over the cost that it isn't worth it or so close to the cost that something might be fishy (e.g. false marks, plated silver, etc.). I think the OP should start by looking for a shop that specializes in silver, so they have a small selection of pots, some of which will certainly be cheaper than others. From there shop around at the antique malls and stores and look for the value. Avoid ebay unless you are looking for a particular manufacturer and know the range of what the pieces sell for and what you are willing to pay.

Just a note - when you purchase something like this, you are paying for a few things - weight, piece, composition (sterling, coin, etc.), age, style, manufacture, rarity, and desirability (some things are hot, some are not). The teapots the OP linked to are fairly extravagant, where you are going to be paying a very high premium for the style, manufacture, rarity. If you are paying $50 or $100 per ounce for an exceptional piece, the price of the base metal is almost insignificant. For example, a piece of Volund Shop silver (hand made by Grant Wood before he discovered fame as a painter) might sell for $600 per ounce or higher - really, whatever the most ardent collector will pay. The cost of the metal is totally insignificant. A modern mass produced piece of the same type, size, and weight (say Franklin Mint type stuff) is almost impossible to sell beyond the cost of the metal.

Oh, and I made a mistake before - classic sterling like you will find in a teapot is %92.5 not %97.5.
posted by mrmojoflying at 6:04 PM on December 6, 2008

If you are interested in learning more about silver marks, I think this is a good online resource.

If you just swallowed your tongue at the prices of silver (!), consider silver plate. Quadruple plate should last a long time (see the fourth, fifth, and sixth paragraphs of the answer here). It can also be replated. I believe monograms and inscriptions can be removed, too.

Word of caution: If you are buying silver plate, do not buy unpolished pieces. You can't tell as easily if the plate is still intact, if there are dings, and so on.
posted by Houstonian at 5:33 AM on December 7, 2008

One more caveat-- silver plate could be made with alloys that contain heavy metals. Hot water leaches heavy metals out. You should avoid older silver plate unless you are in a position to coat the inside with food grade liner.
posted by ohshenandoah at 9:29 AM on December 7, 2008

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