Thursday, April 14, 2011

What Is One To Do When One Is the Recipient of Family Silver?

A month or two ago my dear sister Camilla telephoned me and offered to send me a set of silver flatware that she had inherited from our mother, MD.  It had originally been bought at the end of the nineteenth century for a great-great aunt of ours, named Rita, who married for the second time later in life and left it to her sister, our maternal great-grandmother, known as "Giggy."

My great-great aunt Rita's silver flatware
prior to its professional polishing

When Giggy's widower husband, my great-grandfather, who was known as "Unky" and whose photograph was the subject of an earlier post of mine, died in his nineties in the mid 1950s, MD inherited several houses full-to-bursting of furnishings from him including, among other things, his former sister-in-law's silver flatware.

MD was the only heir to her mother's parents (she, like her mother before her, was an only child), and she was overwhelmed by the vast quantity of stuff that came into her possession when she inherited their estate.  She sold most of it in a two-day sale held at an auction house in Indianapolis, the nearest large city to where her grandparents had lived.  Not only was what she inherited from them out of fashion at the time, but she considered most of it to be far too formal for the way she wanted to raise her (then) young family.  Even so, she still shipped home a truckload of furniture and objects, mostly Victoriana, that she scattered about the houses we lived in when I was growing up.  She got rid of most of it, though, in the late 1960s and early 1970s when she replaced it with modern Scandinavian furniture that was then much in vogue.  Today only a handful of pieces of furniture and objects from her side of the family remain in family hands.

There are nine different pieces of silver
for every place setting in this service

MD held on to some of her family's silver, including her great aunt's flatware and two other substantial sets of silver that had once belonged to other relatives.  Our family regularly used that silver when I was growing up, including eating all of our meals using the flatware that MD inherited, plus other silver that came from my father's side of the family, mainly nineteenth-century coin silver.

Most of the silver is monogrammed "C"
for Coolidge, Rita's married name, 

but some of it is monogrammed "T" and
was likely bought later to fill out the set

As I have written in an earlier post, MD was rather a snob when it came to certain things (despite vehement protestations by her to the contrary), and she informed her children that it was "common" to use anything other than sterling silver flatware for "everyday" purposes (interestingly, she considered stainless steel to be preferable to silver plate, which was beneath contempt).  "People like us," MD sniffed, had multiple sets of sterling flatware at our disposal to choose from when setting the table, so why use anything else?  It's just silver, after all.

Only one piece of the silver
Camilla sent me was truly damaged

Not surprisingly, our silver got rather careless treatment.  MD thought nothing of putting it in the dishwasher, where many of the pitch-filled knife handles split open in the heat. Numerous spoons and forks got mangled over the years by kitchen sink dispose-alls, were thrown out with the trash, or were otherwise lost.
S. Swope & Co. is the name of the
jewelry store in Terre Haute, Indiana,
that retailed the silver

MD spent the last decade and a half of her life living in a life-care/retirement facility where she had little use for her silverware, so she packed it up and put it in storage.  When it came time for me and my siblings to divide MD's belongings after she died, what had once been three large intact sets of silver flatware were now missing quite a few pieces, and much of what remained was scratched, dented, and heavily tarnished after years of not being used.

A vintage postcard of the S. Swope & Co. store, ca. 1910
Image courtesy of

So, what does one do when one inherits—as Reggie did from his mother—or is given—as Reggie was by his sister Camilla—silver that shows evidence of both wear over the generations and where some pieces or elements are missing, broken, or damaged?

The silver's maker's mark is a double-headed
griffon with its right paw resting on a circle containing a "W"

If one is a conscientious steward of such things for future generations, as Reggie is, one takes the silver to a silversmith and has it polished and repaired where needed, and one fills in the missing pieces where one can.  Fortunately, there are several silversmiths here in New York City that specialize in restoring and repairing silver and that—in some cases—also stock pieces in long-discontinued silver patterns that one can buy to fill out one's flatware sets.  In addition to these sources there are internet-based specialist silver dealers, such as Replacements, Ltd., that carry stock of odd pieces of silver in discontinued patterns that one can buy.

Rita's silver after restoration

When I examined the silver that Camilla sent me I determined that it needed only modest attending to in order to return it to a gleaming, well-cared-for state.  I took it to Raphael Silver & Antiques in New York City for polishing and repairs.  In the past I have also used Jean's Silversmiths, which is coincidentally next door to the building where Raphael's workrooms are located, but I chose to use Raphael for this job because they had recently done some excellent work for me in repairing and polishing some silver, including several pieces that I bought last fall at auction and which I wrote about in an earlier post.

A place setting of the silver, professionally-polished and gleaming

Raphael did a superb job in polishing and restoring my great-great aunt Rita's silver, and I highly recommend that you consider entrusting your silver to them for restoration, should it need it.  I also recommend Jean's Silversmith, too, for repairs and polishing, and when seeking replacement pieces, as they have a far more extensive inventory of repacement silver flatware and hollowware to choose from than Raphael does.  Both do a substantial mail-order business.

A pin containing a photograph of
my great-great aunt Rita
as a little girl, ca. 1870
Photograph by Camilla Darling

Reggie believes that it is important to take care of one's possessions, including those we inherit from our forebears.  In the case of silver, that means having it polished and repaired where needed, and then storing it safely when not in use.  But Reggie also believes that one needn't be held hostage by inherited things, and that if one isn't inclined to use them or doesn't care for them, one should feel free to either pass them on (as Camilla did to Reggie) or sell them (as MD did years ago).  However, so long as we own it Reggie believes we are responsible for maintaining it.  That's why they call it stewardship.  

Raphael Silver Repair & Antiques
14 West 45th Street
New York, New York 10036
(212) 719-1159
(no website)

Jean's Silversmiths
16 West 45th Street
New York, New York 10036
(212) 575-0723

Please note, Reggie had received nothing in return for his recommendations, nor does he expect to.

All photographs, except where noted, by Boy Fenwick


  1. I have a feeling that when my heirs inherit the silver (much inherited and some bought to add to the collections)that I have stewardship of they will need the services of a good silversmith. Thank you for the nudge to be a better steward. I will try harder.

  2. This is fabulous. I have a beautiful vintage set of Russian Faberge flatware that WT brought home from his travels. You've inspired me to have it properly restored.

  3. Thanks for taking such good care of it. I knew you would.
    xox Camilla

  4. My Dear Reggie: It seems we independently discovered Jean's. I have purchased a number of cherished items from them over the years, such as my wife's engagement ring and a Georgian silver spoon which they engraved with your nephew's initials and birthdate, as has been the habit of the Darling family since the early 1800s. Your Tradition-Bound Brother, Frecky.

  5. Gorgeous silver! I inherited several odd Victorian serving pieces that belonged to my great-grandmother via my grandmother and have been meaning to post pictures of them. There are no younger generations in my family to pass these down to, so I'll probably sell them at some point but in the meantime I use them when entertaining.

    We inherited two flatware sets, one from my grandparents and one from le monsieur's so we alternate settings at Thanksgiving or when we have a large group over.

    Thanks for the recommendation to use a silversmith. I've been polishing myself periodically but I'd bet my pieces would benefit from professional treatment. Will see if there's anyone here in LA who does this kind of work.

  6. My grandmother put a few forks down the dispose-all- apparently that happens more than I would have thought! It looks like a great restoration job.

  7. What a wonderful post! The restoration process was well worth it, not only does the silver look FANTASTIC, but you will have so much fun using it, I am sure we will see a beautifully decorated Easter table, spotting the "new" silver wear!

    ENJOY! You are very lucky!! Take good care of what has been entrusted to you!

    Northern Light

  8. 3 sets of service for 12 in my basement packed in cryo-vac. One really good set in the sideboard for use at table one special occassions.
    The professional polish job is really a splendid suggestion!

  9. Oh I adore Sterling Reggie,
    and yours looks so incredible after the restoration and repair!

    I have silver plate flatware...a wedding gift in the 1970's from Birks here in Canada. It's made by Rogers in the Silvery Lace pattern.

    I would love to inherit sterling but it is not in the cards...we are humble folk and I use stainless for everyday use...

    I have inherited lots of silver just not flatware...and I polish it twice a year!


  10. So happy I stumbled across this!

    In the early 90's my grandmother gave me half of her mother's sterling flatware service (which still gave me 16 settings) plus various family serving pieces etc., some dating back almost 200 years. It has been sitting locked in a trunk in my office, badly in need of some attention, for almost 20 years now! This will give me the impetus to take it out and have it cleaned and restored!

  11. James Robinson and S.J. Shrubsole in New York also do silver restoration, I believe. Anyway it is a lot of fun browsing these two great dealers.

    I agree with your mother that silverplate that simply replaces sterling is no good (as is most stainless in sterling patterns) but silverplate has a unique look, somehow whiter than sterling, that some designers use to advantage, as in some Fifties Modern patterns.

    If it seems too much trouble to start using an entire set of family silver, individual pieces can be used as serving pieces--this also works for broken sets.

  12. If you have too many utensils, there are plenty of options: convert the silver into bullets for poetically providing cliche solutions to complex problems, call in Uri Geller and have him put on one of his scam-performances by
    "bending" all of them with his mind, or you can always rent out the spoons to expecting mothers in delivery rooms who prefer to reverse-engineer their indicators of affluence.

  13. Camilla is welcome to send me gifts anytime - what a treasure!

  14. Hi Reggie-

    Nice article!

    I inherited a few pieces from my grandmother in her Shreve & Co - San Francisco - silver (Most had been left to an aunt who left it to one of her sons where, alas, it was stolen when silver was "booming" due to the Hunt Bros trying to corner the silver market).
    Of course that loss was NOTHING compared to what happened to a late acquaintance - Sheena Baring-Gould (As in the Baring banking family in London). People broke into her apartment in San Francisco and stole 18 place settings and many serving pieces of PAUL STORR silver which her family had purchased from him. The police said it was most likely melted down within 24 hours. What a loss! It's historic value vastly outweighed it's silver value. Later, her brother, in Santa Barbara, offered her half of his service, but she said no, why feel as though it could happen again.

    I started doing research and found the name of Grandmother's. I was able to "re-create" the set via ebay, replacements and also a service you did not mention: Antique Cupboard ( which has LOTS and LOTS of old silver.

    I agree about having sterling vs plate BUT there are some glorious plate patterns out there. I own one: Rogers BERWICK. Stunning Art Nouveau pattern and there is NOTHING like it in sterling, even Tiffany's Olympian - which I love! However, as you say, your relative was a snob about sterling. I always used to say "Eating off of sterling separates US from THEM!". Isn't that horrid?

    Be well!

    John Johnston

  15. Sterling for everyday is fine, but I have a feeling that your beautiful gift silver will be enjoyed at many dinner parties and buffet suppers, too!

  16. I would exercise caution when having silver buffed/ polished. For many connoisseurs the generations of patina, like on furniture, is very desirable, and it can be devalued by being polished to "look new." Even worse, some services buff to such a degree that there is a considerable loss of definition in the pattern. I can see that rusty steel knife blades would benefit, but would be cautious with the sterling pieces and components.

    A lot of your pieces would look just as lovely as in the "after" photos when cleaned of heavy tarnish. The patina, that fine network of scratches, gives a soft luster, and really shows the whiteness of silver. When highly reflective and polished, it looks more like polished steel or chrome.

    Also, in my experience, it is often much less expensive to buy a replacement on eBay or some matching services, rather than have a piece repaired.

    When buying sterling new, or adding pieces to a set, keep in mind that monogramming devalues the flatware to the metal value, and makes it very difficult to liquidate if ever one changes taste, sells to downsize, or pass to heirs.

  17. I understand the need to use professionals for repair and restoration of old silver, but I've always been curious about about the polishing part. Do silversmiths polish silver pieces in some special way that can't be done by non-professionals at home?

    By the way, I think MD was so right. If one has multiple sets of sterling flatware, one should put the stuff to use on a daily basis. It is, after all, just silver!

  18. I simply adore this blog. When I divorced ... many thousands of years ago, I so loathed my family that I foolishly gave away (in an attempt to disengage totally from Mummy and Pup) my part of Nana's silver. Many years later I inherited the rest of it along with Mummy's. What do you do with unwanted silver ... I gave it away to one who had been a good friend but who would more than likely not inherit. She was pleased and I am happy with what I have ... a hodge podge of silver. I suppose people find it old fashioned that I eat with it, but I too grew up with the habit.

  19. Oh in a P.S.

    The Swope Museum of which you posted a lovely photocard, is a little gem worthy of a visit should you find yourself passing through Terre Haute.

  20. Thank you for the referrals, Reggie. I too love (and use) the silver I've collected since receiving my first place settings as wedding gifts. I'm particularly fond of unusual serving pieces discovered along the way including grape shears and ornate sandwich/pastry tongs (tea anyone?)
    Do you prefer a particular brand of silver polish when cleaning your silver chez Darlington?

  21. Reggie, when I come to dinner, following up on that fondly remembered invitation, I will be on my best behavioUr.

  22. My husband's grandmother gave us her Francis I silver when we married, including esoteric pieces like tea strainers, crumb brushes, and shallow nut bowls, all fabulous. "Mombu" urged us to use the good silver daily to improve its looks (like pearls, one supposes), but she admonished us NEVER EVER to put the silver in the dishwasher. "It will pit the metal and do irreparable harm," she sniffed. So I blanched to read that your MD blithely tossed her silver in the dishwasher. Mombu would not have approved! Best wishes.

  23. Oh Reggie, how wonderful. It looks absolutely stunning! xx

  24. Reggie - one might not buy such ornamental silver but one might love to receive it. And one might, if one were me, have found just such a silversmith out here in San Francisco, and put it up in a post last year. Here's the URL, in case any of Reggie's readers are exiled here on the West Coast with me:).

  25. I am a devoted customer of Jean's; something about stepping in there, wondering what treasures lurk behind other treasures, thrills me. They've done a wonderful job keeping my silver polished and repaired. I was recently a recipient of a shoebox full of silver from four generations of women in my family, and as my grandmother pointed out, each piece was a gift. I love that. I am so happy to be their steward, even if one of the patterns is really rather ugly.

  26. Reggie this is a wonderful and informative post.
    Might I add that if one doesn't have a quality silversmith in their town, for small silver repairs and replating, usually a bench jeweler can do the repairs.

  27. i use my sterling every day- it's a plain pattern and so doesn't seem too much. for while i had a flatmate who didn't understand that the tarnish was not dirt and she went at it with a scrubby sponge trying to clean it. after that i hid my better things until i had the place to myself.
    i really do need to get it professionally polished. it is so fabulous when it's shiny! do i have to send it to NYC or does anyone know a san francisco silvesmith?

  28. To those reading Reggie's blog: I worked at the SF branch of Tiffanys for a number of years. I sold more flatware than any other person there. Why? I encouraged people to use it everyday and to put it in the DW BUT, I warned, you MUST take it out after the wash cycle. Dry it with a good, high quality linen towel (This is also true for your crystal). Several things are accomplished by doing this: 1st, especially if you received it as a wedding present God forbid that it looks newly purchased! "We have ALWAYS had silver in out family.......". 2nd: The knifes will not break. By this I mean that the heat will not cause the silver handle to disconnect from the stainless blade (THAT was the biggest repair request we had). 3rd: You don't have to polish it as much inasmuch as the DW keeps lots of the tarnish away. Lastly get some tine dip. Works wonders for the forks, especially after you have served chicken, which always, at least in my experience, causes the tine tips to turn black....GOKW! As for those who might think that the tine dip will eat away the silver itself....well, all I can tell you is that after I am gone I really don't care. Too many of my relatives, again GOKW, have descended into the lower classes - found God in some instances - so they will NEVER inherit grandmother's service....I'll sell it 1st!

  29. Your heirloom silver is just beautiful! I just inherited from my husband's mother, her silver from her wedding in 1948 and her mother's silver from the turn of the century. Two sets of sterling! I lived 57 years without sterling and now two sets? At least I'll have something of value to pass down to the grandchildren!

  30. Surely your judgment of plate cannot possibly include Sheffield, which I often vastly prefer to silver...

  31. Beautiful sterling Reggie. I have a lot of sterling and silver plate, and thus have had much experience with polishing. The only polish I use is Hagerty's Silver Foam. It HAS to be the foam version of polish; a brown mousse like formula that is extremely gentle.
    It's as easy as washing dishes.

  32. Dear Frecky: I am glad that you have continued the tradition of passing on the Georgian spoon to your son, and that you have--I believe--all of the spoons passed down among the men in our family over the generations. Mine sadly went missing in my twenties when someone decided during a large party to put it in their pocket and leave with it.

    MLS: I encourage you to get your silver out of the basement and out of the sideboard and USE it every day. MD was right...

    Parnassus: I forgot about Robinson and Shrubsole's repair services. I once had a set of George II knives re-pitched and polished by Shrubsole, many years ago, and they did a marvelous job. A set of Robinson silver recently came up at auction at Stair Galleries near Darlington House, where someone got them at an astonishingly good hammer price.

    Yankee-W-P: Thank you for your amusing comment!

    John Johnston: Thank you for your comment, and for sharing the sickening tale of your friend's loss. With the recent run up in silver's market value I will not be surprised to hear of similar tales again.

  33. Square With Flair: Thank you for your cautionery advice. It is because of such concerns that I encourage my readers to only use reputable specialists in the repair and polishing of one's silver. As to patina and such, I agree that it is--in general--to be encouraged and appreciated. However, there are times, particularly when one is not the owner of museum-quality silver, that such silver benefits from engaging the services of a professional to soften the impact of neglect or, in some cases, abuse (hand polishing will not repair the ravages of a dispose-all). It is a judgement call, and a matter of taste.

    Ryan: Professional silversmiths use special polishing wheels to buff silver to a lustrous sheen than cannot be achieved by hand polishing alone. As SWF notes, it is possible to go overboard, though, and one must be careful to only engage silversmiths who are sensitive to that risk.

    Anon 9:28: Thank you for your comment(s). I did not realize that the Swope Museum occupies the site of the former store. I understand that it is, as you write, a gem, and a collection that I would love to see one day.

  34. Karen: We use Goddard's silver polish at Darlington House. It is excellent.

    DDU: The jury is out on putting silver in the dishwasher. While most agree that one shouldn't put knives in the DW, many think it is fine to put solid silver pieces, such as forks and spoons, in the DW--just so long as it is not mixed with stainless steel (which for some reason creates a reactuion that isn't good for it) pieces. Martha Stewart claims it is just fine to put silver in the DW, and she is rather knowledgable about such matters, I find! I'm okay with putting lesser-quality silver in the DW from time to time.

  35. LPC: Yes, I agree this is not necessarily what I would have chosen (we collect less ornate fiddle and thread), but I am very happy Rita's silver and look forward to using it from time to time.

    Cate: Jean's is a wonderful resource, but can be rather dangerous to one's pocket book if one is not careful when visiting...

    BdV: That is a most excellent suggestion!

    Lynne Rutter: Brillo and scouring powders have been the ruination of much silver (and painted china, too). Fortunately a good silversmith can repair (some of) the damage in most cases.

    Anon 11:50: Thank you for your knowledgable comment, from the trenches, so to speak. It is always useful to hear from the experts!

    Vignette: Thank you for your comment. Enjoy your new-found silver!

    DED: No, I'm not speaking (nor was MD) of Sheffield hollowware, only of flatware. I am also a fan of good, early Sheffield, and recently bought a handsome wine cooler of Sheffield for use at Darlington House.

    TheduchessofH: I think Goddard's silver foam is very similar to Hagerty's, both are excellent.

  36. Despite all the warnings I've read over the years, I am still very tempted to put a knife or two in my dishwasher. My dishwasher, by the way, is named Manuel.

  37. I've already told the story about the Paul Storr plates, some of them encrusted with peanut butter and jelly.

    That brings me to the semi-broken Georgian sterling tray that we occasionally break out for family parties. It has a peculiar history.

    An uncle, who was limitlessly charming and compulsively indolent, spent most of his childhood summers in Charleston, where his grandparents owned one of the finest houses on the Battery. At the age of four -- no doubt prompted by some older cousin -- he took a large silver tray from the pantry and rode it down the staircase as if it were a sled. More than once.

    Aided and abetted by the household staff, he managed to repeat this bit of bravado for some years -- up until he was simply too large to pull it off.

    He reached adulthood thinking that he had turned this trick without the knowledge of either of his grandparents.

    Flash forward to World War Two: Perhaps because of these childhood divagations, he volunteers, as a young naval officer, to be tied up on the bow of his destroyer, serving as lookout. Nonetheless, he survives.

    Flash forward to his marriage, immediately following the war: Among the wedding presents is a gift from his now long-dead grandmother -- a hopelessly damaged silver tray, and an immensely sweet note.

    When he died, he left me the tray and the note, the text of which I had engraved on the bottom of the un-repaired tray.

    We still use it for the occasional party, and every now and then someone offers helpful advice about where we could have it "repaired."

    Part of the staircase looked like this:

  38. Ryan: Most amusing! That reminds me of a joke I heard once: A prospective purchaser was looking around the kitchen of a house for sale, and noticed that there was no DW. When they pointed it out to the seller, he said "Why, of course there is, she comes every morning at ten am!"

    Ancient: You must start your own blog so you can post an illustrated story about the tray! I know that I would enjoy it immensely. Thank you.

  39. Hi Reggie, I'm a new reader doing my best to catch up on your posts. My life partner Martin and I are fans of your blog -- I've been reading your "best of" posts to him as we have time.

    I thought I'd comment on this one because we recently acquired a set of sleek circa 1930s sterling at a consignment store after reading LPC's post (the one she provided a link to above) and deciding to go looking in the San Francisco Bay Area. We are very happy the set as it goes nicely with our 1926 bungalow, looks gorgeous on the table and feels nice to use. We would never put it in the dishwasher though. Sometimes we use it for every day, but usually not. We have a set of sliver plate for everyday :-).

  40. Among all the silver Georgian spoon is, in particular, awesome. No doubt it should be left as a family tradition, since such things are priceless these days.

  41. Reggie,
    I first inherited a set that was an amalgam of several generations of family collections coming together--Gorham old English tipt with a variety of monograms from various relatives. I loved it, used it, and eventually found the pattern to be too plain. Then came an unannounced box from my grandfather's second wife with a large set of Whiting Louis XV (same pattern as yours I believe). I love it and use it often. Now the search is on for a cake saw in the pattern! I'd be curious which odd pieces you may have received (we have a waffle server).


  42. Thanks for sharing this idea with us. We offer you the highest quality French antique sterling silver flatware sets and hollowware products at the best prices.


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