An aficionado of Georgian silver offers valuable advice for would-be collectors

December 22, 1991|By Knight-Ridder Neews Service n

He loves silver, but not just any silver. Tony Bernard is a fan of Georgian silver, made in England from 1714 to 1820 when three kings named George -- I, II and III -- sat on the throne.

Georgian silversmiths, Mr. Bernard said, "could take the most ordinary thing, such as a mustard pot, and make an extraordinary thing out of it. I emphasize English silver because England had the best silversmiths, even if they were French Huguenots who were working in England."

Calling Georgian silver -- especially George III (1760-1820) silver -- "still very buyable," Mr. Bernard said a good mustard pot would bring $875 to $1,250 today. "A boat-shaped mustard pot will bring more than a round one . . . unusual shapes help determine prices," he said.

Mr. Bernard, 35, recently was lured from his native New York City to become executive director of Evelyn S. Poole Ltd., an antique gallery that offers museum-quality furniture and accessories in ZTC the Miami Design District.

Mr. Bernard has a fine arts degree from the Rhode Island Schoo of Design, but said the most important part of his education was serving as an apprentice to the late Seymour B. Wyler (author of "The Book of Old Silver," Crown Publishers), considered the foremost authority on English silver in the United States.

During his apprenticeship, Mr. Bernard began collecting Georgian silver, not for investment but "for the sheer fun of it."

"Silver goes up and down, just like the stock market," he said. "Collecting should be purely a love. The best collections are built that way. A lot of collecting was done for instant ancestry, of course, but it was also done for the joy of collecting.

Mr. Bernard offers some advice to would-be collectors:

* Do your homework. "Go to the library and read up on the subject."

* Visit reputable dealers. "They will have good stuff. Unreputable dealers may have pieces that were 'married' [a broken piece mended with a similar piece], or outright frauds."

To find a reputable dealer, ask how long they've been in business "and in business in the same location," Mr. Bernard said.

Dealers who are members of the Appraisers Association of America or Art and Antique Dealers League are usually reputable "because the criteria for belonging to them is so strict . . . you have to produce a million documents to get in," he said.

* Look for a good patina. "It should be a good, warm patina, not too bright, not badly scratched, but an all-over mellowness."

Mr. Bernard said the most important thing to learn about silver is how to read the hallmark, which establishes the authenticity of the piece. Reputable silver should have a hallmark, "but it need not be all five marks:

L * The "lion passant," which is the sign for sterling silver.

* The town mark, which tells where the piece was made. A leopard head is the city mark for London.

* The initials of the silversmith.

* The date letter indicates when the piece was made. The letters A to U were used to convey dates. The style of the letter was changed every 20 years, from upper case Gothic to lower case Gothic, from upper case block to lower case block.

* The reigning monarch's head, or duty mark, so called because it represented the payment of a tax.

Mr. Bernard said silver made for royalty would not have the duty mark, as royalty didn't pay taxes. The mark also might be absent if the silver was made for the silversmith's family.

The hallmark may be on the bottom of the piece, but sometimes it is worked into the design. "It wouldn't be put where it would wear off, such as the handle of a drinking cup," Mr. Bernard said.

"Most important, the hallmark should be clear and readable, not rubbed off. But you can expect some wear. Any zealous housekeeper over 200 years will wear the hallmark off a piece."

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