A CERTAIN VIENNESE baroness had a silver service for 24 and a tablecloth to suit. She felt that hard times had really come when she could leave each of her two daughters only enough silver to serve 12 and half of the tablecloth.

Short of inheriting silver from your mother, the baroness, the best time to acquire silver may be right now.

In January 1980, silver hit a record $50 an ounce, thanks to alleged manipulations of the silver market. But in recent months, silver prices have been going down in fear that the Hunt family of Texas might overload the market by selling their holdings -- enough to supply the United States for six months, according to Washington Post financial writers Jerry Knight and James L. Rowe Jr. Currently, silver is hovering around $12 an ounce. The Hunts' loss is the consumer's gain, because prices of silverware have followed the meltdown of the silver raw metal. Silver flatware is down as much as 60 percent under the January 1980 high.

In some cases the lowered prices result from a more realistic "manufacturer's suggested retail price." Such price lists were largely fictional, because stores, especially discount houses, and even the manufacturers, seemed to have perpetual sales going on. But the actual prices have come down as a result of lowered material costs. Reed and Barton silver, for instance, reduced its prices 40 percent between October and January and 20 percent more in February.

Antique and old silver, threatened for a time by prices high enough to make them worth more melted down into silver glop, are now less threatened. Once again, the price of previously-owned (as they say about Cadillacs) silver makes it a real bargain.

Whether the lower silver prices will cool off the silver thieves is yet to be established. But you might expect it will discourage the kind of snatchers who carry along their own smelters in vans.

The happiest people in this situation are the silver sellers, who in the long run make more money on volume when prices are more reasonable.

"Everybody was priced out of the market. Now middle class families will be able to afford silver again," said John Ambrose, executive vice president of the Silversmiths Guild.

Walter Frankland, of the Silver Users Association, points out that other products with high silver content, such as film, if not cheaper, will at least not go up in price as steeply as expected.

Sinclair Weeks Jr., president of Reed and Barton silversmiths, was in town recently to talk about tableware today.

"Even the buyers of silver are different now. It used to be," he said, "that brides were the principal purchasers of silver -- or at least her friends and family. But today, many of our silver buyers are older women who are working and paying for their silver themselves -- often on the club plan."

The most expensive tableware is, of course, sterling: an alloy of 925 parts fine silver to 75 parts copper (added as a stiffener). European silver is often 800 or even 750 or 700 parts silver to the rest copper. One Dutch manufacturer found a way to harden silver and make 100 percent fine silver tableware, but the price was so high it didn't sell.

Silver plate is silver deposited on a base metal (often a nickel alloy, but sometimes copper) by electroplating.

Pewter is an alloy, originally of tin and lead. Lead has now been outlawed as toxic, so most pewter is actually britannia metal: tin, antimony and copper or perhaps bismuth and zinc. Today's pewter is much shinier and harder than old pewter, which was easily dented.

With silver out of reach for the last year or so, silver manufacturers tried variations to reduce the cost of tablewear.Silver handles with stainless-steel tines, bowls and blades were a revival of an old European style. Pewter tableware had nostalgic appeal for a time. Neither attracted the customer in sufficient quantities.

Silver plate, however, according to Weeks, is not only still with us, but increasing in popularity. A place setting of the popular Reed and Barton "Francis I" pattern in sterling costs about $445 for a four-piece place setting of knife, fork, spoon and salad fork.The same setting is silver plate would cost $77. In stainless steel, the cost would be $26.50.

About 80 to 90 percent of the stainless steel sold in this country, according to Weeks, is made abroad in Japan, Korea and Tawiwan, principally Taiwan. "They have the cheap labor and technique," he said.

Silver plate, on the other hand, is now improved to the point that Reed and Barton offer a 100-year guarantee.

Holloware (teapots, trays, bowls and such) as opposed to flatware (knives, forks and spoons) both in sterling and silverplate, should be popular again with the price down to about $20 an ounce (reflecting the cost of fabrication), Weeks hopes. Pewter, brass and copper, unpopular as flatware, are holding their own for decorative pieces.

Antique-silver dealers are chortling over the lower prices. Though, Helen B. Dougherty, the owner of the Four Winds silver store in the Thieves Market (on Route 1 in Alexandria), said her sales not only held up but increased during the high silver prices. At the Georgetown Silver Shoppe on Wisconsin Avenue, Henry Duryee, the co-owner, said prices are about down to where they were before the steep rise: old spoons are $25, forks $35 to $40, knives $30.

Both places do a big mail-order business. They match patterns from orders sent them. They ask prospective buyers to include the hallmark (the manufacturer's stamp or name), the name of pattern and a photograph.

The other good news about silver is the new silver strips being marketed now by several manufacturers. The strips are put in silver chests to attract corrossive materials away from silver.

Weeks suggests, "If you use your silver every day, you won't have to polish it as often. It's all right to put it in a dishwasher if you use a mild detergent. Calgonite is a good one. Be sure to dry the blades of your knives if you skip the heat drying cycle. When you first buy your silver, wash it by hand for a few times until it gets a patina, otherwise hard water might make it look spotted."

For those people who still have the antique carbon blades on their knives, Weeks has congratulations. "Stainless steel may look better, but its not as good a cutter."

He warns against leaving salt on a spoon or in a bowl because that tarnishes silver. And never, never wrap a rubber band around silver, the resulting marks are very difficult to polish out. Camphor, sometimes put in silver chests to retard tarnish, will impregnate the silver and make it taste bad. Unlike some authorities, Weeks doesn't rail against silver dips. "But only use them on fork tines or such, it takes out all the decorative shading on silver and doesn't really make it shine, it leaves the silver cloudy." He doesn't recommend ammonia.

The worst horror story Weeks remembers was the man who brought his silver back because it was scratched so badly. His maid had cleaned it with steel wool.

Weeks recommends keeping silver in tarnish proof bags, in a drawer, away from moving air which could have sulphur fumes.

In buying silver, the first rule, Weeks points out, is to choose a pattern that will be around for a while, in case you need to add or replace pieces in your service. "Feel between the tines of the fork to see how well polished it is. Check the weight, heavier is better. Notice the crispness of the design, the front/back balance of a piece. Be sure the edges of a spoon are thick enough and its bowl deep."

Today, except for some small makers such as Allen Adler and the Old Newberry Crafters and a few individual craft workers such as Washington's Susan Tamulevich and Komelia O'Kim, flatware, according to Weeks, is largely a machine operation, though the final polishing is by hand. Holloware takes more handwork -- 25 to 30 different parts have to be cast and soldered.

Today, in a reversal, some American silver is sold abroad, though the traditional European silver is much larger than the American