Cautionary note for novice silver sleuths

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kerangoumar
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Cautionary note for novice silver sleuths

Postby kerangoumar » Wed Aug 01, 2007 12:00 am

Many people comb through resale and thrift shops looking for that elusive piece of silver that will turn out to be rare and valuable. I frequently go through to see what sorts of fake and questionable merchandise is in the market.

A lot of previously silver plated material now tempts the novice; the shapes look old, the pieces appear quite tarnished but - once they've got the purchase home it is unmasked as base metal. The old pot has been through the acid bath and its remains are up for sale by frequently unknowing, inexperienced clerks. (Ditto copper; there's a wealth of copper forms that have been stripped of their silver, as well.)

If you don't know a lot about silver, take the time to learn before you get burned. Acquaint yourself with silverplate manufacturers' marks and if you see one on a "tarnished" item, rub your finger over its surface and smell it. The "tarnished" base metal will not smell; if it is dirty silver its acrid odour will lodge in your nose.

Better yet, go to a reputable dealer. Look, ask questions, look. Pick it up - sterling is comparatively light. It has a certain feel and look. Look until you can with certainty unmask the poor form that has been stripped of its precious skin.

(There is a corollary to this: prices of these items have dropped low enough that unscrupulous "antiques" dealers are buying the forms and replating them thinly to sell as the real thing.)
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salmoned
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Postby salmoned » Wed Aug 01, 2007 4:48 pm

I'm doubtful of this sort of advice. Silver is actually denser (heavier), not lighter than copper and the other metals used in nickel silver. Also, I have never smelled anything in silver tarnish (unless the polish has been left on it), but nickel silver tarnish is quite acrid to me.
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Granmaa
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Postby Granmaa » Wed Aug 01, 2007 4:52 pm

Silver tarnish most definitely smells. Even if there is no tarnish, by rubbing a moist thumb rapidly over the object and sniffing, a trained nose can distinguish silver. But then, I think the eyes are far more useful.

Miles
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salmoned
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Postby salmoned » Wed Aug 01, 2007 10:07 pm

Are you implying that an expert (much less a novice) may distinguish sterling tarnish from silver-plated tarnish (or nickel silver tarnish, even) by smell alone? If not, the value of this technique is doubtful, at best.
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dognose
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Postby dognose » Thu Aug 02, 2007 4:56 am

Hi Salmoned,
I think the point that is being made is that silver is often lighter than its base metal counterparts, due to its ductility it can be worked thinner and not least to the expence of the raw material.
As for the smell this is a good test when there is silver present, there are some metals that can give the appearance of silver to the untrained eye, especially when polished, but the foul smell of silver tarnish left on you hands after handling dirty silver is unforgetable.
These are of course points for deciding that something is not silver rather than that it is silver.

Trev.
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Granmaa
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Postby Granmaa » Thu Aug 02, 2007 6:34 am

Hi Salmoned,

Most definitely an expert could, blindfolded, distinguish a silver object from a nickel silver object. And anyone who owns two such objects could train his nose in a minute.
However, as far as I know, there are no collectors or dealers who rely on smell alone; but it is certainly not worthless to have a technique which one can use in conjunction with sight and touch.

Miles

PS Trev, I find the smell quite nice! Am I alone in this?
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kerangoumar
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Cautionary note for novice silver sleuths

Postby kerangoumar » Thu Aug 02, 2007 12:57 pm

Aaaaaaaaaah! the stench of silver sulphide. Granmaa, you are not alone in finding it pleasant. Let's be honest, tho. The actual odour is acrid and unforgettable - I like it because it assures me that there is indeed silver 'neath my fingertips.

As for other comments in response to my suggestions, of course one shouldn't rely on smell alone. But if one has a 'badly tarnished' object it is very easy to sort out which it might be. And for people who haven't had much experience, to acquaint themselves with the odour will prove useful.
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salmoned
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Postby salmoned » Thu Aug 02, 2007 2:17 pm

Well, saying "anyone could do it' is going well over the line of reasonable, as I know from experience I cannot. I also doubt anyone could reliably distinguish silver from silver-plated objects in a double blind test. As for distinguishing between tarnish-free silver and nickel silver, copper, pewter or stainless steel, that I cannot do either in a blind test by smell alone and doubt the ability of even a trained nose. If smell is used in conjunction with other techniques, but can only provide marginal corroboration, then it becomes nothing more than a reinforcement of the tester's existing opinion and therefore worse than useless information.
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salmoned
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Postby salmoned » Thu Aug 02, 2007 2:28 pm

I seem to recall a television program recently in which subjects were given chocolate yogurt and asked about the strawberry flavor - none were able to distinguish that they were eating chocolate and not strawberry.
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admin
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Postby admin » Thu Aug 02, 2007 3:39 pm

I believe that anyone that has spent a number of years fascinated by antique silver can, 9 times out of 10, pick out the silver piece from a pile of silverplate without looking at the marks.
Generally when asked how it is done the answer is something like "um...you just know".
I think the reason for the brush-off answer is that the judgmental mechanism involved is just far too complicated to articulate.
What comes into play are all of the senses (all right, minus taste...hopefully) bound together with everything you've ever learned, both consciously and unconsciously, from looking at and handling hundreds or thousands of silver & plate items.
To say that you can smell a piece of silver is misleading, certainly smell may come into play, but all of your senses and foreknowledge are influencing your nose, whether you are aware of it or not.

Regards, Tom
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Granmaa
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Postby Granmaa » Thu Aug 02, 2007 3:55 pm

As for distinguishing between tarnish-free silver and nickel silver, copper, pewter or stainless steel, that I cannot do either in a blind test by smell alone and doubt the ability of even a trained nose.


I have done precisely this in single-blind tests with my brother; rubbing the thumb firmly on a piece of silver accentuates the smell, and unless you're testing pristine bullion or immediately polished silver, there is almost always some tarnish to detect.

I have to negate your argument that:
If smell is used in conjunction with other techniques, but can only provide marginal corroboration, then it becomes nothing more than a reinforcement of the tester's existing opinion and therefore worse than useless information.

If I test an object and it does not smell like silver, then I know that it is not silver regardless of my original opinion. I have refrained from buying unhallmarked or curiously marked spoons after they smelt neutral as indeed I have bought similar spoons which did smell. How on earth can that be useless information?



Miles
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Postby dragonflywink » Thu Aug 02, 2007 5:18 pm

Have to say that the scent of silver has never had a place in my determination of whether or not to buy. I can detect it, and don't find it unpleasant until it's embedded in my hands after pawing through flatware bins, but everyone's olfactory senses are different, there are many folks that simply can't smell silver, many won't be able to differentiate odors after a few tries, I get odors "stuck" in my nose and if that happens, can't really smell much of anything else.

My sense of smell is quite sensitive, and I'm often repelled by the smell of foods that I actually like (cantaloupe, peanut butter, popcorn, corn chips, etc.) and both the smell and taste of coffee disgusts me; on the other hand, my mother has never been that way and it's worsened with age (occasionally check her fridge for stuff gone bad) - could explain why she's famous for liking all foods except raw oysters and anchovies.

~Cheryl
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salmoned
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Postby salmoned » Fri Aug 03, 2007 2:51 pm

Doubtless, an experienced silver hound can determine solid silver from silver-plated or nickel silver 9 of 10 times, but certainly not using their nose, but rather their eyes and sense of touch alone. [Of course, with the results of a density test on a void-free object a novice can determine solid silver 10 of 10 times without even viewing or handling the object.] This idea that smell will prevent one from being 'burned' on a purchase is not plausible. If one can't tell from the look and feel, smell isn't going to help you. Having refused to buy based on smell alone, you very well may have passed on a good deal, as tarnish does not form on silver absent the presence of sulfur. As well, rummaging through perhaps 20 or 30 pieces of flatware, smelling more than a few will exhaust or cloud one's sense of smell and gather very strange looks from anyone around you.
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admin
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Postby admin » Fri Aug 03, 2007 3:00 pm

Ladies & Gentlemen,
As all camps have made their points and remain entrenched, let's close the subject. There is nothing to be gained from rehashing the same arguments.

Regards, Tom
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