Silver antiques collecting depends on hard work and dilgience to establish a knowledge base.
It is essential to continually handle and inspect the finest silver items to develop a discerning eye for what is authentic and what is fake.
As you become more experienced and develop confidence in your discerning appreciation you will develop a 'feel' for the genuine article. If you can recognise a good piece then alarm bells should ring when something is not right, even if you cannot put your finger on what is wrong with a piece.
The best advice is to always buy from a reputable dealer who guarantees authenticity.
The history of silver smithing goes back to about 4000BC. The two main ways of working silver are by either pouring molten silver into a mold or by hammering a silver sheet over anvils to raise it up into the finished product.
Hallmarks were introduced in England in 1300, initially just to stop fraud. The first hallmark was a lion's head, called leopart in French which became the leopard's head, familiar to us today. A date letter on the hallmark was introduced in 1478.
All separate parts of an article should be hallmarked, e.g. a jug with a lid will have both marked. If a piece of silver is altered, it should have fresh hallmarks.
Because it is a very soft metal and difficult to work in its pure form, it is usually mixed with another metal like copper. In the UK, Sterling silver is the standard and that must be 92.5% pure silver; the standard varies from country to country.
With changes in fashion, many types of silverware have become outmoded. They are then altered so making them more saleable. For example, Georgian drinking mugs have the bodies re-hammered into milk jugs. If you are suspicious, check the thickness of the silver: it should be even throughout the body with no thin spots.
18th century soup dishes are no longer particularly desirable so some have been converted into dinner plates. Look for creasing between the plate border and the centre. The hallmark may also be distorted, either stretched or compressed. Look out for 'duty dodgers'. These are pieces of silver made between 1719 and 1758 when duty on silver was high. During that period, to avoid paying the duty, silversmiths would insert a piece of silver already hallmarked from an earlier redundant object. At that time hallmarks on articles like coffee pots and teapots were put on the base in a group. If you see an object like this from this period with the hallmarks in a straight line on the base, be cautious.
Tankards with lids were made into coffee pots. The body would be re-hammered to make it taller and a spout would be added. The handle would also be changed from silver to wood because a metal handle is not practical for a vessel used for hot liquids. Look at the proportions of a coffee jug: does it look too short for the width of the base? If it does, it could have started life as a tankard. Lidded tankards were also made into jugs. A short spout is hammered out or added to the tankard and often the plain original object has ornate decoration added.
If you want to start collecting early Apostle spoons, be very careful. There are a number of excellent fakes on sale. The only realistic way to detect them is to be very experienced and have an excellent eye for the real thing. Easier fakes to spot are the ones converted from 18th century tablespoons because the hallmarks are often wrong and the modelling of the Apostle is poor.