Everything you need to know to buy and sell sterling silver flatware successfully on eBay. If you are starting a collection, or adding to an existing collection, or selling Grandma's silver, this guide is for you.
You have seen the store with the $500 5-piece placesetting, and also the store with the $150 placesetting. Relax, you won't have to pay those prices. I started just like you and now have a very large collection of Wallace La Reine flatware purchased entirely through eBay (404 pieces and counting - click my name and the ME logo to see two photos of the whole collection).
There are a few things you need to know right away about sterling silver flatware, and all of the examples and sizes that I use below relate specifically to the Wallace (manufacturer) La Reine pattern.
Dinner size vs. Luncheon or Place size (vs. Continental size)
The main knives and forks for most patterns come in two different sizes: dinner and luncheon size (which is sometimes called "place" size). Dinner knives and forks are usually about a half an inch longer than the luncheon size, but are substantially heavier than that extra half an inch would indicate. A few patterns come in Continental size, but it is EXTREMELY rare and refers to the overall larger size and longer length of flatware that is popular in European countries. It is marked by even larger dinner forks, knives, and soup spoons than dinner size. Continental teaspoons tend to be the same as American standard sizes. (For example, in the popular Wallace Grand Baroque pattern the knife sizes are - L: 9", D: 9 3/4", C: 10 5/8".) Almost all the listings for collections and single place setting you will see on eBay will be for luncheon size and NOT dinner size flatware. Dinner size is much rarer, and thus more expensive. You must know the dimensions of the pieces in your pattern and be sure you are bidding on what you think you are bidding on, and you may have to ask the seller for measurements. Some patterns (VERY rarely) come in different weights and have an M ("Massive" - the heaviest), H ("Heavy") and there are also lighter "Trade" and "Extra" weights, but I've not seen them marked. For Gorham a book lists the following weights: T Trade 9 Troy oz. per 12 teaspoons, E Extra 10 TO, Regular 12 TO (No Mark), H Heavy 14 TO, M Massive 15 TO, ST - Small trade which is the lightest (8), T - The most common which is Trade weight (9).
French Blade vs. Modern Blade Knives
There are two different main kinds of knife blades on dinner and luncheon knives. All of these are hollow handled or "HH" as they are often abbreviated. The blades on hollow-handled knives are not sterling silver, but are stainless steel. A Modern Blade will extend out from the handle in a smooth line, whereas the French Blade comes out of the handle and makes a corner before the blade continues to the tip of the knife. In the oldest patterns there is also the "U"-shaped Old French Blade, which sometimes has a silver-plated blade.
Hollow-Handled (HH) vs solid silver Flat-Handled (FH) Butter Knives
There are two kinds of butter knives, hollow-handled or flat-handled (solid silver) butter knives. The descriptions are obvious, but sellers often don't know about the difference and so you have to examine the photos to see what is on offer. Flat-handled butter knives usually have some sort of pattern that extends up the very beginning of the blade from the handle. Also note that there are at least two different kinds of stainless steel blades on HH Butter Knives: a paddle blade, which has a round end, and the standard or modern blade that matches the larger knife of the same name. I have not yet seen a HH Butter Knife with a french blade.
Discontinued vs. Still Being Manufactured
Older discontinued patterns often have more unusual pieces available, as having an unusual piece with only one purpose was seen as the height of luxury. However some newer patterns also have more modern unusual pieces (i.e. the pasta server). If your pattern is still being manufactured it means you can fill in any holes in your collection through retail purchases, but I have never found the need to do that. My pattern has been out of manufacture for many years, but there is still plenty of it around on eBay.
What is a place setting?
All of the measurements below are for my particular pattern, but are indicative of other patterns. You can quickly find the actual measurements for your pattern online.
A four piece place setting is:
- 1 Dinner (9.5") or Luncheon (9") size knife
- 1 Dinner (7.5") or Luncheon (7") size fork
- 1 teaspoon (6")
- 1 salad fork (6.25")
A five piece place setting is all of the above plus:
- 1 soup spoon (either a cream soup spoon (6") which is round, or an oval soup spoon (7.25") which is sometimes also called an Oval Dessert Spoon)
A six piece place setting is all of the above plus:
- 1 butter knife (either hollow-handled (6.25") or flat-handled (6.25")
Starting Serving Pieces
This is pretty obvious when you think about a traditional Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner in the United States for example.
Serving Spoons - You will need several large serving spoons, which are known as Table Spoons. There are two main kinds of these: Solid Table Spoons and Pierced Table Spoons (both 8 3/8"). There are also sometimes two kinds of Pierced Spoons, either with a multi-pointed fork like end, or a smooth round end. It's nice to have at least two Solid and one Pierced, but more is always better when you think about how many serving dishes you might have on the table.
Gravy Ladle - A gravy ladle (6.5") is a normal serving piece that most people will want to have. If you have a gravy boat in your china cupboard then you will want a sterling gravy ladle.
Pickle Forks - These are small forks usually with either two or three tines (5.5") and are useful as serving pieces for small items, including not surprisingly, pickles.
What Information Should a Seller's Listing Include?
All listings go in eBay section Antiques/Silver/Sterling/Flatware (no exceptions!). The title of every listing should list the Manufacturer, the Pattern, and the Item Name. Some sellers put the pattern name in "quotes." Any monogram should go in the title and description, such as "mono F." If it is a no reserve auction sellers usually include "NR" in the title. Some sellers use NIP or NIB in titles for New In Package/Bag, but take this with an extremely big grain of salt.
Sellers are warned: Listings Without Pattern Names Sell for Much Less.
The description should list the details for every piece of a collection, especially the lengths of knives and forks. The condition should be accurately described. For example if fork tines or knife blades are bent slightly that should be mentioned, if spoon bowls are particularly scratched that should be made clear. Monograms should be prominently mentioned and shown in photographs. Forget the weight, as knife handles are almost paper thin and filled with cement to hold the blades in.
Photographs should be clear and sharply focused. One picture should show all the items together, usually against a black or other very dark background, and individual photos of the various types of items so that a prospective buyer can clearly see the condition of what is on offer. If there are black pit marks on any of the items, usually on knife blades, make sure this is completely described, as failure to mention this means refunds are in order for incomplete description of serious problems. (Close-up photos of the maker's mark on the back are sometimes included, as some buyers want to see these.)
How Much Silver Do You Want/Need?
Sterling flatware is expensive, but not nearly as expensive as some sellers would like to think it is! Some listings ask a starting price of more than an average of $30 a piece, and some even higher. More than $20 per piece for a standard collection of luncheon size would probably be too high a final price on eBay, and I usually expect significantly lower. Many, many pieces are left unsold on eBay, and the ones that do sell are often around $10-$15 a piece or are unusual pieces that are in short supply.
So, most people either choose 8 place settings or 12 place settings. The question is: How often do you sit down to a formal dinner using your best china, crystal and tablecloth with more than eight people? Never? Then 8 place settings should do just fine, particularly to start, since you can add additional place settings later if you find you need them. But don't wait too long to expand if you think you might do so, because you will probably also want to add other pieces to your place settings and it is easier to buy these other pieces all at once.
What to Look For In That First Set
The most important decision you make, and the one with the permanent consequences, is which pattern you decide to buy. Look closely in eBay in Antiques/Silver/Sterling/Flatware at the categories for each manufacturer. If there is a collection for sale, search for other listings that use this pattern name to get some idea of how common this pattern is on eBay.
Collections almost always include a pattern name. Most sellers, even if it is their first time on eBay, realize that they will get a higher price if they do a little research on any of the many pattern identification websites so they can post the actual name of the pattern in the title of the listing.
Most sterling silver flatware will show some signs of use, but silver can be easily polished using a silver cream, and unless an item is seriously abused, flatware pieces will quickly and easily polish up so that you will be proud to have them on your table. Be very careful of black pitting on stainless steel knife blades, as this does not remove easily (or at all), and items with these marks should be avoided if at all possible. Some sterling silver pieces may require a bit more elbow grease (that means more vigorous and longer polishing) than others, particularly the bowls of serving spoons for example, but generally there is little to worry about with any listing that gives a full description and provides good quality close-up photos. While blades of knives can come loose from the sterling handles, this is quite rare in my experience and any seller that doesn't acknowledge even the slightest wobble whatsoever in a listing is far over the line into misrepresentation and refund time.
Monograms are the bane of an eBay sterling flatware collector's existence it sometimes seems. Extensive experience on eBay shows that a monogram on a piece of flatware cuts its value about in half, though there are so many sellers who learn this the hard way. A few people perhaps don't mind monograms, but I personally consider monograms to reduce a flatware piece's value to zero. Like many others, I won't bid except in extraordinary circumstances, for example, when the monogram is on the underside of a fork or spoon, which I have seen and have bought. Listings will commonly say that the pieces show no signs of monogram removals. I strongly recommend that you should not buy a starting collection with a monogram that is not the first initial of your last name, no matter how good a deal you think might be on offer, as you are unlikely to ever be satisfied with the collection. If it turns out you don't mind monograms, then you will find some amazing deals.
Care, Cleaning and Storage
Fine sterling flatware requires more care than the everyday stainless steel. Hand washing is recommended. You can put sterling in the dishwasher, but remove it before the drying cycle begins as the high drying temperatures will damage it. Avoid lemon scented detergent. Storage is in special silver cloth lined drawers in a silver storage box, or in silver cloth drawer inserts for a china cabinet or other drawer, or in silver cloth sleeves that hold a dozen pieces and then roll up with a tie around the bundle for safe keeping.
Because silver tarnishes when exposed to the atmosphere, you must occasionally polish your silver with a silver cream or silver polish. Most experts strongly recommend against using a chemical tarnish remover like Tarnex, which they say also removes some of the silver finish, and I have never tried it. You can also buy small paper strips that apparently absorb sulfur gas from the air that causes tarnishing, and one small strip is placed in each drawer with the silver.
There are some seriously crazy folks that will recommend steel wool, Tide detergent, Pledge furniture polish, and who knows what else, but I strongly advise you to ignore all of it. Hot water, dish soap, and a sponge to wash, a soft dry towel to dry, and silver cream/polish only to polish.
How Did I Start?
My first collection of La Reine was purchased in 2003 for $1,390.65. The set included 12 six-piece place settings as well as 8 Lobster Forks, 3 Serving Spoons, 1 Ladle, 1 Sugar Tongs, 3 extra Teaspoons and 3 extra Salad Forks all in a wooden box with a drawer. At 91 pieces (and box) the price per piece was $15.28, which was a decent price. You will see ridiculous starting and reserve prices on many listings, and I usually don't bother to even look at any listing with a "BuyItNow" label as this is almost always a dealer with an unrealistic price.
Later I purchased 12 more five-piece place settings with 59 pieces (one teaspoon was missing) for $800, or $13.56 per piece. Since then I have added Dinner-size knives and forks and dozens of other pieces, both for place settings and serving pieces.
How To Keep An Eye on the Market?
Set up a search for the name of your pattern in favorite searches. If your pattern has an unusual name that doesn't apply to lots of other kinds of items on eBay, then you can set the to search for both title and description for all of eBay, but usually the search will just include the pattern name and search inside Antiques/Silver/Sterling/Flatware. A search of completed sales will quickly show you what the market prices are for what you are looking for. In some patterns searching for incorrect but common spellings is useful.
I also have a saved search that weeds out almost every named pattern in the Wallace Manufacturer area of sterling flatware, so that I can look at items that don't appear to have incuded a pattern name. I have found some great deals on obscure items in my pattern this way.
What Does A Seriously Complete Collection Include?
The most extreme case for a large sterling flatware collection might look something like the two lists below for a placesetting and for serving pieces. The pieces in an individual place setting would be something like the list below:
One Complete Place Setting
- 1 Dinner-size knife
- 1 Dinner-size fork
- 1 Luncheon-size knife
- 1 Luncheon-size fork
- 1 Dinner-size steak knife
- 1 Luncheon-size steak knife
- 1 Teaspoon
- 1 Salad Fork
- 1 Cream Soup Spoon
- 1 Butter Knife
- 1 Boullion Spoon
- 1 Fish Fork (part of what is called a Fish Set with the Fish Knife below)
- 1 Fish Knife
- 1 Oval Soup or Dessert Spoon
- 1 Ice Cream Fork (these are extremely rare in some patterns)
- 1 Five O'Clock Spoon
- 1 Demitasse Spoon
- 1 Iced Tea Spoon
- 1 Cocktail Fork
- 1 Grapefruit Spoon (with small serrated teeth on the end of the spoon)
- 1 Fruit Spoon (perhaps the same as a Grapefruit spoon)
- 1 Fruit Knife
22 Total Pieces
Complete Serving Piece Package
Suggestions for a fairly complete collection of serving pieces (some items would include multiple copies) would include most of the items below, but keep in mind there are dozens of unusual pieces such as the pasta server, asparagus server, food pusher, etc. out there in some patterns:
- Solid Table Spoons
- Pierced Table Spoons
- Gravy Ladles
- Sugar Shell Spoon
- Master Butter Knife (FH)
- Oyster or Small Sauce Ladle
- Mustard Ladle
- Cheese Knife
- Cake Server
- Pie Server
- Sugar Tongs
- Jelly Server Spoon
- Cold Meat Fork
- Carving Knife
- Carving Fork
- Pickle Fork (3 tine)
- Picke Fork (2 tine)
- Bon-Bon Spoon (Pierced)
- Tomato Server (HH or FH)
- Buffet Forks (2 tine)
- Baked Potato Fork (a twisted-tine Buffet Fork)
- Caviar Spoon (an actual sea shell attached to a sterling handle as the touch of silver ruins caviar)
- Wooden Salad Fork with Sterling Handle
- Wooden Salad Spoon with Sterling Handle
- Butter Pick
- Horseradish Spoon
- Cheese Spoon
- Pate Fork
- Dinner Bell
- Candle Snuffer
- Tea Strainer
- Ice scoop
- Martini pitcher stirrer
Final Thoughts - What Does It Really Cost?
Scrap price is 85% of spot price for pure silver (see my other eBay Guide about this).
I also have a detailed eBay price guide for one pattern that lists all successful auctions of any piece or collection in this pattern. It is http://reviews.ebay.com/Actual-Prices-for-Sterling-Flatware-Paid-Not-Asked_W0QQugidZ10000000000769933
I recommend Replacements.com for their listings of all the different kinds of pieces in a particular pattern, but I have never been tempted to buy any sterling from them at those prices.
There is an excellent eBay Group for sterling collectors/sellers with detailed pattern search information: http://groups.ebay.com/forum.jspa?forumID=3403
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