What makes fine tableware valuable? What’s a good choice to buy (or sell, if you’re downsizing?)
‘Tis the season for feasting and thanksgiving, for roast turkey, cranberries, and cloth napkins. It seems a shame to put a fine feast out on daily dishes, but the field of fine china, crystal, and silver is vast and confusing. Here at Trader Chris we handle all sorts
of collectibles for the holiday table, and these are just a few of our observations.
What Makes Tableware Valuable: The Basics
From the collector’s point of view, provenance comes first. Fine china, glassware, and silver should come from a recognized maker of good reputation and long experience. There’s a bit of snobbery involved here, but it’s practical too. Some shopping channel silverware of unknown origin is likely not as well made as brand name items, either in terms of strength or purity of materials.
That leads us to the second consideration: purity. Sterling silver, defined as at least 92.5 percent silver metal content, is both more lustrous and durable than lesser quantity flatware. Stainless steel is far more practical than any silver, but it lacks the warmth and artistry of well-made sterling.
What about silver plate? Beginning in the late 19th century, industrial processes made it possible to produce silver plated implements in vast quantities. You’ve seen the markings “EPNS” on many plated pieces? This stands for “electro-plated nickel silver.” Other plated wares are rated by the thickness of the applied silver, often expressed in plain numbers like 1, 2, or 3. When new, good plate is indistinguishable from sterling. But over time, thin plating can wear through, revealing the base metal beneath.
Sometimes this is more than an aesthetic problem; I once had a large butler’s tray analyzed for metal content with one of those hand-held X-ray devices, and a significant percentage of the underlying base metal was lead—not something you want to be serving food on! Lead was commonly used in pewter alloys in the old days, but it was surprising (and alarming) to find significant lead content in a tray made circa 1895.
Collectors and sellers should stick to sterling. It holds more value, and generally commands more interest. Demand for silverware overall is down these days, mostly because of the weight and upkeep necessary to maintain it, but the value of silverplate has tanked and may never recover. Some elaborate plated pieces can retain value—tea sets by noted English makers, for example--but in general name-brand plate is worth no more than good stainless, and sometimes a lot less.
Fine china faces this kind of duality as well. When the process of making good porcelain became industrialized, the value of it went down. As with sterling, the best values remain with name manufacturers, though not at all are esteemed equally.
For example, prices of Wedgwood have fallen,
while the value of modern designer china can vary dramatically.
Big time English and American brands, from Royal Doulton to Lenox, hold a certain value, but nothing like they used to. Decoration can also add or detract from the value. Heavily decorated floral patterns have lost ground to less common forms of decoration: animal paintings (horses, dogs, and cats), hunting and fishing scenes have supplanted roses and lilies, at least at this time.
Japanese brands like Mikasa or Noritake do not command high resale values. They’re well-made and well decorated, but their ubiquity tells against them--they're simply too common. Their tendency to feature trendy designs and colors can also work against them, classic forms and classy colors retain interest long after popular trends disappear.
So what’s “in,” and what collector pieces are worth buying (and of course, selling)?
People today are less interested in formality (and the effort required to make it work), and that affects the holiday table.
Candlesticks and candelabra hold interest, particularly in porcelain and crystal.
Candles add warmth to any occasion, give romantic highlights, and are just fun. Fine candlesticks from Royal Copenhagen, for example, are classically beautiful, and porcelain never needs polishing, unlike silver.
If crystal is your interest, stemware is often a good choice. We see a lot of Waterford, and while it’s good, solid, handsome stuff, higher ends brands like Baccarat, Moser, and Steuben offer better value and elegance. For the romantically inclined, decorative tea sets, heavily gilded or with fine hand painting are a good choice. Russian tea sets, along with older south German (Bavarian) brands are prized. Russian sets often come with sterling spoons, beautifully enameled.
Not all brands and styles are as desirable as they once were. Limoges brands vary in popularity, and like Japanese porcelain, suffer from being too widely available to seem special. High end Limoges ware is unmatched in quality, so if you’re looking for bargain, Limoges may be the way to go—but selling it may not be so successful.
Centerpieces, often in the form of crystal bowls or vases, are a good choice for the holiday table, and are popular in the market. Brands to look for include Daum, Lalique, and Baccarat. Moser and other Bohemian glass makers are particularly well-known for their holiday themed colored glass but may be too specialized for off-season use, and we have not experienced much demand for these brands.
If you're in search of a bargain, less fine but still attractive centerpieces can be found from the likes of Dept. 56 or Fitz & Floyd. These brands may not hold as much value when downsizing though. Vintage pieces can benefit from nostalgia value, but nostalgia is not a reliable criterion when selling. One buyer’s fond memory might be another’s kitsch.
What’s “out?” Punch bowl sets. Useful at wedding receptions, punch bowls have become so specialized no one seems to want them anymore. Like large silver plate flatware sets, they take up a lot of room and have limited utility.
One last idea: buying off season usually saves money (as in many other fields), selling in season nets better prices. Your mileage may vary! When the leftovers are gone and the holly comes down, everything changes. Happy holidays, and bon appetit!