Unmarked Silver in Mid-18th Century

Why the Most Precious Silver & Gold Unmarked ?

Snuffbox Gold_circa 1740.jpgGold snuffbox, unmarked, circa 1740. auctioned at Cristie's in 2009. Goldsmiths and Silversmiths involved in making Rococo Naturalistic Spoons registered themselves as small-worker, sometimes specialized for a small box, to London Assay Office, like Francis Harrache and John I Derussat. On the other hand, some precious gold items, like this sunuff box and 6 gold spoons in the Gilbert Collection are unmarked. Why?

The wealthy individual aristoctats, who directly ordered silversmiths to make silverware for their special purposes rather purchased them diplayed on the market, did not need any assay or hallmarking systems, especially in the case these aristocrates and silversmiths belonged to the same community as Huguenots. The Goldsmiths' Company levied for their assay jobs at the certain rate on silverware or goldware. These levy could not be accepted by individual aristocrats. This would be the basic reason why some precious gold or silver items did not bear any hallmarks.

Extension of the Assay in 1777

There was a list of rates to be charged for assay set out by the Goldsmiths' Company, to compensate for their hallmarking works. In April 1777, the Goldsmiths' Company revised the list of rates to be charged for assay (from 0.5d to 2d per article), which listed sixty-three categoris of silverware, partly to recompense for the recent cost of building a new assay offices in Birmingham and Sheffied and partly in belated recognition of 'various new invented articles of small plate' which had previously been assayed 'and inadequate sums taken for the same'.

These 'various new invented articles of small plate' considered new by the Goldsmiths' Company because they had become fashinable and were regularly passing through the assay office in large quantities since 1739 Hallmarking Act, as middle-class consumption of silverware was growing rapidly.

Individual aristocrats orders did not justify a change in assay office prices; this was solely due to the pressure of great quantities of small machine-made silver arriving for assay. Another category, 'Pieces to garnish Cabinets or Knife Cases', was the characteristic silver trims found on boxes throughtout the period 1730-90; they are far more often found unmarked, or struck with the maker's mark only, than fully marked, even after this date.

This list did not exhaust the small novel silver wares available from London shops; in the following month, May 1777, the wardens carried out one of their periodic fishing expeditions, buying gold and silver articles from shops in the City and Westminster to check on their silver standard and their marks. The list of offending silver adds several fresh categories - cases for pencils and for toothpicks, a 'Muffinger, two Mustard Tips and Covers, two Scissor Sheaths', each small but a reminder of the ubiquitous nature of silver as the most convenient, attractive and easily worked material for both tableware and small accessories.

The Goldsmiths' Company enforced its policy; five months later William Brockwell was fined 40s at the City Quarter Sessions and imprisoned in the Wood Street Compter for a week 'for a fraud in making teatrays worse than standard'.

Assay and Hallmark in England

The originators of hallmarks can be attributed to French, in 1272 the first town marks were mentioned, in 1427 maker's marks at Montpellier. In 1300 the first mention of a mark for English silver was appered, when the leopard's head or king's mark was specified as evidence that the worked silver was up to sterling (coinage) standard; the guardians (or wardens) of the craft were to go from workshop to workshop, assaying and marking before the wares left maker's hands. In 1363, the maker's mark was introduced: 'each Master Goldsmith shall have a mark to himself.'

In 1478 the Company was made specifically responsible for the keeper of the touvh (or royal officer). To ensure that they could police his activities, they appointed a salaried common assayer on 17 December 1478, to work at the Hall only and mark all wares with date-letter, the basis of the modern system.

One more mark jointed these three in 1544, the lion passant crowned. In the 1540s the silver content of English coins was sharply reduced which led to sneering references to Henry VIII as 'Old Coppernose' whose shillings and sixpences were 'growing for shame', as Latimer described in a famous sermon. This is almost certainly why the Goldsmiths' Company introduced the new mark. It indicated their adherence to the starling standard for all hallmarked wares, no matter that the silver content in the coinage was by then only 50 per cent! The crown of the lion passant was dropped in 1550.

Changes in, and additions to, the hallmarks since then have occured for various reasons. In 1697 the Crown required a higher silver content for wrought plate (95.8 per cent) to protect their newly issued milled coinage from clipping and melting, so new marks, a lion's head erased (torn away at the base) and a figure of Britannia, were substituted for the sterling mark and lion passant. New maker's marks were required as well, with the first two letters of the goldsmith's surname.

After the 1697 Act, provincial goldsmiths were left in an anomalous position, with no assay offices, no aythority to sell sterling standard plate and no official Britannia standard mark. In Norwich, two goldsmiths, James Daniell and Elizabeth Haslewood, enterprisingly marked their wares with a stamp 'F:SIL' for 'fine silver', with repeated impression of their maker's marks to give four in all.

New assay offices were authorised in 1700 at York, Bristol, Exeter, Chester and Norwich. in 1702 at Newcastle, in 1773 at Birmingham and Sheffield.

When the Britannia standard was made optional in 1719 (operational from June 1720) several silversmiths continued to work in the higher standard, notably Paul De Lamerie (his first starling mark in 1733) and Augustin Courtauld, and some do to this day.

Later additional marks have been connected with the duty levied on wrought plate. In December 1784 this was imposed, at 6d an ounce, and duty mark struck, with punches supplied by the Board of Stamps (later Revenue). The first mark, the sovereign's head incuse, was changed two years later to the more familiar severeign's head in cameo, facing right, which was dropped in 1890 when the duty was removed. Since then, sovereign's head marks have been introduced in 1934, in 1952 (for two years) and in 1977, with the object of stimulating sales among collectors.

Philippa Glanville, "Silver in England" and additional coments by Seiji Yamauchi

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