HUNTINGTON BLOCK, one of the biggest insurers of fine arts in the country, said he and his wife looked at five or six silver serving pieces they were given at their wedding 28 years ago, "and we thought we really might as well sell them. We don't use them and what with the price of silver, it might be a good idea."
People with the same dilemma, in this time of wildly fluctuating silver prices, are asking endless questions of Block and other insurance companies, auction houses, antique dealers and appraisers.
The questions are: Should we sell our silver now with the escalator metal-market prices? Where should we sell it? Should we instead buy silver? mIf we're going to keep it, how should we protect it against The Burglar, who no doubt is reading the silver quotations every day as well? How do we decide what it's worth when the price changes every day? For what amount should we insure it? What will the insurance cost?
Nobody can tell you whether you should sell Aunt Tootsie's asparagus server. Only you know how many times you serve asparagus. Or how often Aunt Tootsie is likely to show up for dinner. Or whether she'll cut you out of her will (and thereby deprive you of even more asparagus servers) if you sell it.
Last April, the Living section ran an article saying silver was priced at $7.50 an ounce but bound to go up. At that time you could buy an average new fork for $54 to $102, depending on the pattern. Now silver hovers between $35 and $37 a troy ounce. A troy ounce is 31.1035 grams where as the more usual (in this country) avoirdupois weight is 28.3495 grams.
Bruce Uliss, division manager at Garfinckel's said, "Sometimes we think we have a guaranteed price on a silver piece and then the order is returned with a new, higher price. It's almost pricing by the hour. I don't think silver will ever come down, with all the industrial applications.
"We're just gotten in a price list for February on Gorham's Fairfax. A single dinner fork is listed at $392.50. Can you believe it? Don't hold me to that price. By the time we order it into the store, it may be higher. Back last April that fork sold for $75.50."
Edith Schubert, owner of Martin's in Georgetown, said that on all silver orders they have to call the manufacturer to find out if he has the silver in stock and will quote a fixed price. "In most cases, they won't give a price until they ship it." Schubert said they haven't raised the price of the silver they already had in the store, but they only have a few pieces, mostly antiques, left in stock. "People are still coming in and ordering silver. They're afraid if they don't it will be even higher tomorrow."
Some silver manufacturers are believed to be making up price lists now, with the hope that silver prices are more stable. But all have warned their dealers that those prices could change any day.
Donald Webster, co-owner of C. G. Sloan's auction house and admittedly a man who has an interest in whether you sell your silver, said: "A great deal of silver is being consigned now. All that wedding silver is coming out of the woodwork for prompt sale. It's safe to say that at no time could you get more for your silver than you can now. And there are people who think the price might not hold, so you should sell now. On the other hand, it depends on your income-tax bracket. If you have to pay high taxes on your profit and then have to pay these wild prices to replace it, well it isn't such a good idea.
"An insurance agent I know gathered up all his silver, took it over to a smelter and got $4,000 for it. He took the money to the Washington Antiques Show recently and spent the whole amount on Chinese Export porcelain. I think he did the right thing, because he had something he wanted to do with the money."
Sotheby Parke Bernet's silver expert, Jay weinstein, said: "The last few days have been crazy. We've had a marked increase in both cosignments and sales. At our last big silver sale at PB 84, our auction house where we sell more modern silver, it was going for about $30 an ounce. But that's less than it will cost you to buy new silver retail at a jewelry shop or department store. So old silver is still a good buy." Sotheby's has set a reserve price, about $30 on all silver to protect the sellers. (A reserve price is the lowest price at which the piece will be sold.)
Sotheby's in New York has heard rumors that some people in London are selling not only Victorian but Georgian silver to be melted down. Everyone hopes it isn't so. Some collectors are comforting themselves with the thought: If all this silver is being melted down today, the good silver that's left should be all that more valuable.
Silver at auction is bringing between $30 and $40 an ounce. The auction house charges 10 percent for selling it and adds 10 percent to the buyer's cost.
Jim Rosenheim at the Tiny Jewel Box says he has taken most of the silver out of the display cases and locked it up in the vault -- and not just because they're worried about The Burglar. "We had a three-day run on silver -- bowls, tea sets, everything. We sold 90 percent of our stock. I'm going to hold on to it for a while until the prices have stabilized. I just don't know how to price it right now." His company is paying about $25 an ounce for good usable silver.
The two principal consignment shops in town have never priced silver by the weight, though the weight always has been taken into consideration at the auction houses and some silver firms.
These shops accept goods "on consignment;" that is, they won't buy your objects, but they will sell them for you at a charge of 25 percent of the sale price. The Bombe Chest benefits Jewish Charities; the Christ Child Opportunity Shop, Catholic charities.
Fannye Berman at the Bombe Chest said, "People have been coming in here with scales, weighing our silver and buying the heaviest pieces. At one time we were completely sold out of silver except for two weighted candlesticks. It makes me so mad that people are buying silver to melt it down. I won't sell a nice piece to someone if I think it's going to the smelters."
Recently, when the smelters were not buying any more silver, one of the buyers came in to try and sell some back to the Bombe Chest. But both the Bombe Chest and the Christ Child Opportunity Shop in Georgetown don't buy silver, but accept it on cosignment, charging a fee only when it's sold.
Ann Lenoir at the Christ Child said they had a similar experience with buyers coming in with scales. "And now our consigners are catching on and asking higher prices. We had a pair of 12-inch-square Dresen silver trays, not sterling but 800/1,000. They were priced at $2,500 for the pair, but they're heavy. But there's not as much silver being brought in now."
(Sterling silver is 925 parts of pure silver out of 1,000. European silver varies, but often is 800 parts silver to 200 parts other metal to harden it. Smelters only pay silver prices for the 925 or 800 parts, the alloy is bought at a lower price. Silver that's 800 may sell for 10 percent less, ounce for ounce, unless the workmanship is especially good. Coin silver, made in the United States until the first part of the 19th century, is 900 parts silver to 100 parts alloy. Well-designed handcrafted silver is worth more than machine-made silver, of whatever purity.) Scaling Silver
Carl Martin at the Georgetown Silver Shoppe says he is weighing each piece as he sells it and figuring in the current ounce price. "Our phones are ringing off the hook with people who want to sell their silver. We don't have the money to buy what we're offered. If we do buy, and its a nice piece, we'll pay over the scrap price. But we've bought very little. We don't want to be stuck if the prices go down. People are certainly still trying to buy from us. We have 100 letters we haven't answered from people wanting to buy from ads we've run in magazines."
Vivian Arpad, co-owner with her husband Michael of Arpad Antiques in Georgetown, said, "Antique silver has never been cheap. It's always been valued at much more than the melt price. The value is in the workmanship and the rariety, not the metal price. We don't seem to be having a great run on silver."
Joseph Horowitz, manager of National Pawnbrokers, and Louis Isaacoff, owner of Reliable Pawnbrokers, both report they have had no more silver than usual pawned. Both only lend on flat silverware. Horowitz said he is lending 25 percent more on individual pieces "because obviously it's worth more now," but the volume hasn't increased at all. "About a month ago, dealers came in and cleaned us out of silver out of pawn. Since, then, we've had little to sell, people are keeping up their payments and they redeem their tickets as soon as they can. Prices on silver are unreal. It isn't good for business."
Isaacoff said he hasn't had much silver brought in. "I lend on each piece according to what I think it's worth, no set price, sometimes more, sometimes less. I dicker. I worry about silver. I don't want to take a chance of it being stolen. Then I'd lose all I paid for it."
Benjamin Weschler, one of the owners of Weschler's auction house, said: "A lot more silver has come in recently. We had $50,000 worth of silver consigned today. One lot was $10,000. We've revised our pre-sale estimate to reflect these increases. A Mexican Tea set for instance, 300 ounces, we've estimated to sell for $5,000 to $6,000. That's a lot more than it would have brought last February. An American tea set recently sold with us for $9,000. Getting an Appraisal
If you have decided to give up asparagus and Aunt Tootsie, before you sell the piece, you'd better have it appraised. You wouldn't want to sell it to be melted down and then find out that it's an Art Nouveau piece made by Josef Hoffman and worth 20 times the melt price.
Michael Stearns, an important Pennsylvania dealer, told the story at the recent Washington antiques show of a man who showed him a set of beakers he planned to sell for salvage. They were early 1800s coin-silver (900/1000) pieces and worth for their antique value two or three times the bullion content.
Even if you're keeping your silver, you must have an appraisal to insure it, unless yours is a silver pattern carried by one of the local stores. The new silver can be insured for the current retail price. But antique silver or out-of-production silver has to be appraised.
Most of the leading appraisers charge by the hour. An inherent conflict of interest seems possible in those who charge a fee based on a percentage of their evaluation.
Arpad's charges $65 an hour, door-to-door, to appraise silver and antiques. "For heaven's sake, don't have a party the night before and leave everything in chaos," said Vivian Arpad. "Ahead of time, get it all out and put it on the dining table. Otherwise you'll forget something."
The Arpads give a list with a full description and evaluation of the items.
Sloan's and Weschler's both charge $100 minimum for the first hour and $75 for the second hour.Both say they work fast and use tape recorders to dictate the list, later typed at their office. Weschler's charge a little less for a few pieces brought in by appointment on Saturdays.
Russell Burke at Sloan's says, "I take along a scale for the silver. It doesn't work to weigh it on the bathroom scale, as we point out to people. Sometimes we have to come back and look things up, but we don't charge for the research. Once in a long while, for instance in the case of a collector of match safes, we find the owner is more knowledgable than we are. And then we learn something."
But the insurance company is not about to accept your evaluation, even though you're The Expert on Viennese Secession silver. And they won't insure it just by the weight and the market cost. They want that written appraisal from someone in the business, preferably a member of one of the appraisal societies.
There are two major ones: the Appraisers Association of America and the American Society of Appraisers. The Society has an office here in Reston (call 620-3838).
If you want to hire Sotheby Parke Bernet to come down and appraise your silver, it's $250 for five items or less; $500 a half day for goods valued to $100,000; $2,000 a day for goods valued at $100,000 to $500,000. After that, the fee is subject to negotiation between them and you. Oh, by the way, you have to pay the plane fare, meals and hotel. In May when Sotheby's opens its Washington office, you'll only have to pay travelling expenses from the office to your house. Need for Insurance
Bob Herrin at Huntington Block said they're getting several calls a day from people to insure silver, whereas they once had only a call a week. Most ordinary household floater policies only insure silver up to $1,000, no matter what your silver is worth. Scheduled insurance -- that is, insurance on a specific, appraised list of objects -- is what you need for silver (or antiques jewelry or art) worth more than $1,000.
"We ask for a complete description: weight, height, border, age, markings."
They don't ask for photographs, though pictures combined with the other description would seem like an excellent way to identify pieces, especially antiques. Blocks charges $2.20 a year per $1,000 evaluation. That rate has been steady for five years. The same price is in effect in Maryland, Virginia and the District. You might be able to save as much as 10 percent if you have a central station burglar alarm -- one that triggers an alarm at the police department.
Interestingly, Block reports that there has not been a great rise in claims on silver."We've seen no great rise in the number of thefts. Though people are concerned primarily about burglaries." But a recent report showed that burglaries were up in Virginia and Maryland, down in the District. Restoring and Storing
William Pimble at Universal Plating Co. says their prices have just gone up on silverplating, after a January sale at 20 percent off. "We just had to go up some because we do quadruple plate thickness."
The most worried people are those who have collections of antique silver that can't be replaced, no matter how much the insurance pays off. Some are carting it all down to the bank and stuffing it into safety deposit boxes. Some banks are fresh out of the larger boxes.
One Art Moderne collector, who has an extensive alarm system, has decided to go one further to defeat The Burglar. "I understand that some burglars have it timed so they can get in and out of the house in the 4 1/2 minutes it takes to have the police respond to the alarm. I figure that if you keep all your silver in the dining room, they could make a clean sweep in nothing flat. So we decided to disperse our silver all over the house -- bits and pieces all over. Of course, there's always the danger we'll forget where we put it, but at least we wouldn't lose everything if we were burgled."
And then there's the sad case of the Fastidious Housekeeper.Four or five years ago, she took out her sterling silver service for eight, and saw it was tarnished once again. She took it all over to the garbage can and heaved it out.