Robin Butler on Twitter

November 2012

It is a commonly held belief that anything silver-plated on copper is 'Sheffield plate'. Actually, It isn't.  Indeed, I'd almost go as far as to say that most items silver plated on copper are not Sheffield plate, but electroplated.  Let me explain the difference for those who don't know.  But first, let me mention one crucial aspect of silver. The pure metal, silver, is too soft to be worked into practical objects and to overcome this, it is alloyed with other metals to make it more resistant to wear and more attractive to look at.  92.5% silver to 7.5% other metals (or .925 standard) is the most widely used silver alloy in Britain and is known as 'sterling' standard.

in 1743 or thereabouts, Thomas Boulsover chanced upon the happy discovery that copper and silver, when heated to a sufficient temperature, will fuse together and the resultant material can be worked as if it were homogeneous.   Initially, he fused a thin sheet of sterling silver to an ingot of copper, which he was able to mill into a sheet that could be fashioned into domestic objects.  He did not patent his invention, and by about 1770, many others were fusing silver to both sides of copper to make objects of which both sides would be seen.  Silver fused onto copper in this way is known as Old Sheffield Plate (OSP) and an important aspect of OSP is that the surface you see is sterling silver which has a 'warm' silver colour and is relatively resistant to abrasion from polishing.  Of course, over time and with zealous servants, the silver would become so thin as to vanish so that the copper beneath could be seen.

By contrast, electroplated objects are formed, often in copper but also in alloys, which then have a layer of silver deposited on them electrolytically. The amount of the deposit is dependent on the time taken and other factors, but it is invariably less than the thickness found in Sheffield plated objects. Originally called the 'Galvanic Process', it was invented early in the 19th century and first developed commercially by George R Elkington in the 1840s. The process was a much quicker and cheaper method of silver plating, and it soon rendered the Sheffield plating process obsolete.  The result is that almost all objects silver plated after c.1850 are not Sheffield plated - whether or not they were made in Sheffield! 

However, pure silver, as deposited by electrolysis, has a much harsher and 'whiter' appearance than the alloyed version, and its surface is considerably softer.  It is for this latter reason that many electroplated  pieces are worn through to the copper; the deleterious effect of repeated polishing is considerably more rapid than the wear of OSP.

The earliest forms of Sheffield plating, when it was done on one side only, are seldom seen - almost to the point of being rare.  However, I have just found a good example, being a wine label for 'claret'.  It is, as was the practice at the time, die-stamped and the decoration on the front is very clearly delineated on the reverse, the front being silver and the back being copper - now a rich dark hue.  It follows the earliest form of silver wine label, being what collectors call the 'escutcheon' shape, which probably dates it just inside the first half of the century.  When bought it had no sign of having been polished for many years, and accordingly it is in very fine condition.  It is also a pleasure to mention something which is not only uncommon and in fine condition, but also for being one of the lowest priced objects I currently have.   

Christmas is on the Way!

As we approach the festive season, I have discovered some exciting fresh decanters and other wine accessories to complement my existing stock/ inventory.  Alas, Jancis Robinson in her recent FT article, did not mention me as a place to buy antique decanters, an omission quickly pointed out to her by Hugh Johnson! She immediately amended her website, where she posts all her articles, and has made a suitable adjustment there. Thank you, Jancis, you are forgiven!  As I pointed out to her, I have more antique magnum decanters than any other dealer and probably more antique ship\'s decanters than the rest of the world put together!  

However, that is only half the story; I have a comprehensive decanter selection catering to a range of tastes and ages from early Georgian to late Victorian, and from plain to highly decorated.   I have singles, pairs and even two sets of four.   It is odd how some people have the wrong impression - Jancis thought I only had decanters at the £1,000+ price point.  I let her know that while I do have some in that category, most were considerably less and my decanters start at just £75.  The first four categories on my website are given to decanters, but there are more in the Hugh Johnson Collection, so please do look there also as the stock content is constantly changing.

While I had my first wine-related antiques exhibition in 1978, and wrote my first book on the subject in 1985, I am not sure whether or not I was the first to deal in the subject; I think I was.  Christopher Sykes of Woburn was also dealing in collector corkscrews a very long while ago, having started in his business in 1949.  However, our interests seldom conflicted as he catered for the corkscrew collector market which is not at the top of my priorities.  I received a note from him last week to say he was retiring from active business so it seems I am now alone in my field - until I hear to the contrary.  I wish Chris a happy retirement. 

Finally, I have recently had printed a new card with a pictorial overview of what I have on one side and contact details with note space on the other.  It also carries the 'strapline' "Unique and practical accessories for those whose enjoyment is wine" and it is the size that will fit in a business envelope.  If any reader would like some to use as postcards, bookmarks or any other use, please let me know, and I will mail them to you.

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