Auctions & Thrifting

How to Identify Sterling Silver Jewelry

Sterling silver is a common metal for jewelry because it ages well, is easy to manipulate, and is more affordable than gold or platinum. By definition, sterling silver is silver that is 925/1000 parts silver, or 92.5% silver. Pure silver (99% +) is too soft for jewelry-making so the highest silver content in jewelry is usually .925. The remaining percentage of alloy is usually copper, but other metal alloys can be used too such as zinc and platinum.

Identify Sterling Silver using Hallmarks

The best way to identify sterling silver jewelry is to inspect the piece, because almost all silver jewelry has a stamp indicating the silver content. A HUGE catalog of silver stamps used over time and by different manufacturers is located at the Online Encyclopedia of Silver Marks, Hallmarks, and Makers Marks. Researching these makers marks will tell you just about everything you need to know about where and when your jewelry was made.

925 Sterling Silver

925 sterling silver mark
A sterling hallmark from a piece of Mexican TAXCO silver. This includes a “sterling” hallmark with the “925” as well as a TAXCO indicator and the jewelry maker’s mark.

Since the early 1900s, American sterling jewelry is required to have a sterling mark if it is 92.5% sterling silver. Pieces older than the early 1900s will be stamped “STERLING” or “STER” or “SS” somewhere on the piece of jewelry. It may have been stamped this way or it might have worn away over years of wear.

However, newer sterling silver jewelry is often stamped “925”. 

To the right is a sterling silver hallmark from a TAXCO piece, including the maker’s mark (“Perlita”). If you have a TAXCO piece that includes detailed hallmarks, you can research them in a Mexican sterling marks catalogue. In this case, Perlita is the name of a local shop in Taxco, Mexico, the Mexican town that is so famous for silversmithing.

I love Mexican silver and can get lost on eBay poring over the tons of examples and huge range of quality found in Mexican silver jewelry, particularly Taxco silver.

950 Sterling Mark

You often find the 950 Sterling mark on Mexican sterling from before the World War II era. 950 silver is 95% silver and 5% alloy, and does have a higher silver content than sterling. However this is not seen very often in jewelry because it’s difficult to make jewelry with this softness of metal.

900 and 800 Silver

Older and antique jewelry may include a 900 stamp. This shows that the jewelry is 900/1000 parts silver, 90% silver and 10% alloy. This is obviously not quite as high a silver content as sterling. Coin silver might be an alloy, but it can literally mean you’re holding silver made from melted down coins. Vintage Native American jewelry may often not have a silver content mark on it, but often this jewelry has a silver content in the range of coin silver.

Sometimes, you’ll see an 800 stamp on a piece of vintage silver jewelry. This means that the content of the jewelry is 4/5 or 80% silver and 20% alloy. Many times, based on the style of the piece and the 800 stamp, you can begin researching European jewelry and other foreign makers. Some vintage silver filigree jewelry will have an 800 mark as well.

Silver Testing

Commercial silver test kits are available for silver jewelry online, or you can go to your local jeweler or metal scrapper for testing if you’ve exhausted your own research.

Why Sterling Silver?

Sterling silver is one of my favorite metals for jewelry because it ages well, often developing a beautiful gray or black patina, and it is more affordable than gold or platinum. Jewelers love sterling silver because it is easy to work with and beautifully sets off precious and semi-precious stones. In the gallery above, I included some of my favorite styles of sterling silver pieces, including Mexican jewelry, Tuareg jewelry, and mid-century silver statement pieces.

Learning to identify sterling silver is easy with a little experience and research and will bring big returns to any collector. As with any metal commodity, you can track the value of sterling silver at any given time by getting familiar with the commodities market.  

What is Siam Sterling?

Siam Sterling jewelry was manufactured from the 1930s through the 1980s, and was a very popular motif in the 1950-60s. Although Siam officially changed its name to Thailand in the 1940s, the “Siam” nickname for this style of jewelry stuck. 

Siam silver is officially called “Nielloware.” Niello is a black mixture of copper, silver, and lead, used as an inlay on engraved or etched metal. American soldiers who visited Thailand in the mid-20th century bought this jewelry for their ladies back home, making it a popular mid-century trend. Much of the filigree was etched by hand by Thai artisans.

Identifying Siam Sterling

Nielloware pieces are usually stamped “Siam” or “Niello” on the back. You will find common examples with figurals such as dancers or peacocks carved out of a black field. All Siam sterling is sterling silver and will usually have some type of black, white or occasionally colored enamel as part of the design. Only the black and silver pieces are considered Nielloware by collectors, and colored enamels fit into another category of Siam silver.

Value

Most pieces aren’t worth a ton of money, but if you think you have something large or unusual, DO YOUR RESEARCH. Collectors of Siam sterling get very serious about unusual colors and large, rare pieces and will pay top dollar.

A History of Creepy Dolls

Whoops!

When I first started going to auctions, I accidentally bid on and won a creepy doll. At an estate auction, I didn’t like the cut of some lady’s jib, and bid her up on a random item to be a jerk and give her a hard time. This is a common, if ill-advised, auction practice — I learned it from my parents.

Karma got me for showing off. I won it.

My win was an early 20th c. composition “mama” doll with a white gown and white leather shoes, whose head had been damaged by moisture and peeled away at the top, exposing a dense white skull of “composition,” a molded glue and sawdust mixture. She dated about 1910-1940. Her eyes opened and closed and her cloth body was stuffed to be about the size and weight of a 10-12 month old human child. These were called “mama” dolls because they had a voice box inside that said “mama” when you sat the baby up or laid her down. My baby no longer said “mama.”

She was creepy as all get out. She had flat eyes, a peeling head, and a weird smile. She was roughly the size and weight of an actual baby. Nobody wanted anything to do with her. I put her in an antique store but nobody would buy it. I tried to sell her online and got no interest at all. Eventually I stuck her in a closet waiting for an opportunity to unload this baby doll on someone else.

Posting about this weird mistake on social media, my friends and family were delighted with my bad luck and began to associate me with creepy dolls of all kinds. Folks sent me every link, photo, story, or event that had to do somehow with creepy dolls. It turns out there is a lot of them. There is even a doll museum in my hometown I didn’t know about prior, a two-story Victorian row house complete with a creepy curator and chock full of automatons from floor to ceiling. People are disappointed to find out that I not only don’t collect creepy dolls, but I’m also not into them apart from teasing my friends and family. 

Today, someone sent me this amazing article by The Smithsonian on the history and culture associated with Western dolls and an exploration of what we mean when we talk about “creepiness”:

Research into why we think things are creepy and what potential use that might have is somewhat limited, but it does exist (“creepy”, in the modern sense of the word, has been around since the middle of the 19th century; its first appearance in The New York Times was in an 1877 reference to a story about a ghost). In 2013, Frank McAndrew, a psychologist at Knox College in Illinois, and Sara Koehnke, a graduate student, put out a small paper on their working hypothesis about what “creepiness” means; the paper was based on the results of a survey of more than 1,300 people investigating what “creeped” them out (collecting dolls was named as one of the creepiest hobbies).

Creepiness, McAndrew says, comes down to uncertainty. “You’re getting mixed messages. If something is clearly frightening, you scream, you run away. If something is disgusting, you know how to act,” he explains. “But if something is creepy… it might be dangerous but you’re not sure it is… there’s an ambivalence.” If someone is acting outside of accepted social norms – standing too close, or staring, say – we become suspicious of their intentions. But in the absence of real evidence of a threat, we wait and in the meantime, call them creepy. The upshot, McAndrew says, is that being in a state of “creeped out” makes you “hyper-vigilant”. “It really focuses your attention and helps you process any relevant information to help you decide whether there is something to be afraid of or not. I really think creepiness is where we respond in situations where we don’t know have enough information to respond, but we have enough to put us on our guard.”

Finally, after three years of scaring myself by finding the creepy baby in closet after closet (“Did I move this, or…?”), I pawned it off on someone else. A local artist who didn’t seem too horrified by the idea found her on his doorstep.

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How to Identify Stanhope Jewelry

A Stanhope ring with close-up. Photo from Pinterest.
A Stanhope ring with close-up. Photo from Pinterest.

Several months ago, I lucked out and found a large stash of Stanhope novelty pieces at a garage sale. The collection I had to choose from was mostly religious icons, like tiny paintings of saints, the Lord’s Prayer, and other iconography hidden in keychains and cross pendants. The naughty Stanhopes, however are highly collectible — Victorian cheesecake nudes — so I snatched them all up.

A Stanhope is a tiny peep hole with a lens containing a micro-photograph inserted into a novelty souvenir. The photo inside is the size of a pinhead and has to be held up to a light and very close to ones eye to view the image. 

In the Victorian era especially, these novelties were extremely popular and cheap to make, and because they were so proliferous, people didn’t take great care of them which accounts for their rarity today.

A Stanhope ring.
A Stanhope ring.

Although the pieces I have are merely cheeky today — microphotographs of Victorian ladies in various states of undress — these would have been quite scandalous way back when.

You can identify Stanhope jewelry primarily by the small lens located somewhere on the piece, usually on a pendant, fob, keychain, or ring. Oftentimes Stanhopes will look like little lenses, like a telescope, a pair of binoculars, or another eye piece. If this is a religious piece, the lens will typically be in the center of the cross. The lens is usually about 3mm in diameter and will go all the way through the piece, and is curved like a dome on one side. You must hold it right up to your eye and look through the dome in the direction of light to discern the image inside.

VALUE: It depends. These were widely manufactured but many of them were ruined or not treated very nicely. The “adult” versions have a value as a novelty item, but these were rarely made with precious metals or stones. I’d compare with recent sales on eBay to price your item.

NOTE: If you have and love a piece of Stanhope, you must be very careful not to expose the piece to moisture in any form. Water, lotion, steam, or any other moisture will dissolve the tiny picture on the lens, negating the value of the piece. I learned this lesson the hard way.

More on Thrift Store Shopping

thriftshop1. I don’t thrift in town if I can help it. I travel to the smaller towns in the region, avoid Goodwill and Salvation Army, and hit up the little church thrifts in Nowhere, Indiana.

One major reason I skip town that the tiny towns may not have excellent quality clothing, but they have a ton of clothes and sell them cheap. A thrift store not too far from here offers $2 a bag sales in which the little church ladies force you to fill your industrial-sized garbage bag of clothing before you leave. Another reason is that if you’re like me and don’t mind mending and spot cleaning, you can find some funky clothes that would otherwise be snapped up by hip-minded college-aged students with an eye for vintage t-shirts.

The other major reason is that the ratio of “time capsules” to collectors is smaller in rural areas. A time capsule is an estate by an older person who has passed on or is down-sizing, and all of their curated items from an earlier era. The best time capsule I ever had the pleasure of shopping was a high-end horse ranch in the middle of nowhere, the estate of two well-traveled professors. It was glorious.

2. Know your size. First, know your measurements and your actual dress size based on those measurements.

Better: Don’t just know the number, but be able to eyeball what will fit and what won’t. I know certain styles, shapes, and fabrics will work with my body and others won’t. I can pretty much look at a piece of clothing and know whether or not it will fit me. My safe bets, being pretty curvy and of average height, include A-line skirts, cotton t-shirts, sweaters, and cardigans. I’m not so much worried about what brand label it is so much as it looks wearable, feels machine washable and I like it. After all, I’m getting an enormous amount of clothes for quite literally a few dollars.

3. Go ahead and try it on — over your clothes. My friend taught me how to try on clothing in a thrift store by wearing things in that easily come on and off in the aisle under your potential buys. Nobody cares, I’ve gathered, and neither do I since I’m out of town.

An easy way to figure out if a waistline will fit your body: Hold the pants/skirt flat. Place the pants waistband over your neck where a tee shirt collar falls.  If the waistline of the pant will not meet on the back of the neck, the pant will not fit. If it does and there is some give, there is an excellent chance it will fit around your waist. Seriously.

Yes, you will be wrapping pants around your neck in public like a weirdo, but it works.

4. Don’t go in with a particular item in mind. Think more openly about, for example, what season of clothes you’re looking for, or specifically what you aren’t looking for. Be open and try on a lot of stuff. There are always more clothes. Buy what you’ll actually wear.

Thrift store shopping provides the great majority of my wardrobe — the only things I spend a good amount of money on are pants and shoes, although I have quite a few pairs of thrift store shoes in my arsenal as well. Purchasing a good pair of pants for work is a good investment if you’re an office monkey, because a black or brown pair can be worn with nearly any crazy shirt you pick up at the thrift store and be made to look professional. I have one pair of black pants, one pair of brown pants, and a pair of gray pants. This is all I need for work with my collection of thrifted tops.

Shoes, too, are a good investment, primarily because you have to care for your feet lest you end up with hooves like mine. Get leather, make sure the heels are in good condition, and that there are no signs of cracking. If they stink, shake some baking powder in there before you wear them.

Who Was G.G. Drayton?

dolly dingle christmas party_edited-1If you’re local to the Lafayette, Indiana, area and you’ve eaten at Arni’s, you are probably already familiar with G.G. Drayton’s art without realizing it. She was well-known in her time for creating the “Dolly Dingle” and “Kaptain Kiddo” characters, including an extremely popular line of paper dolls — which are featured in jumbo size in the back room of Arni’s toy room in Lafayette’s Market Square.

I didn’t know her name until recently, when I purchased a pair of watercolors that I knew were probably special, without actually knowing what they were. Once I got them — for a pittance — and got them into the car and into decent cell reception, I looked them up and just about wrecked my car. I had just picked up two original Grace Gebbie Drayton paintings, framed, in excellent antique condition. I was first attracted to the little orange cat, which looked like a mid-century, mod piece. When I saw the little bulldog, it read Victorian to me and I realized the pair was probably much older than I originally thought.

"Tigerey", G.G. Drayton
“Tigerey”, G.G. Drayton
"Bull-Doggie", G.G. Drayton
“Bull-Doggie”, G.G. Drayton

So, score!

But wait a minute, who the heck is G.G. Drayton?

I did some research and found out she was a pretty cool person. An Edwardian clothes horse and the most famous of a family of lady artists, Grace Gebbie Wiederseim Drayton was an early comic book artist and entrepreneur whose work wasn’t often taken seriously because it was “overly-mannered” lady stuff. Regardless, she worked surrounded by a generation of young female artists who were fighting to change the perception of women in the male-dominated art world, not to mention the perception of women in general. Many of these folks were early suffragists and bohemians and early flappers.

5424855413_714d5803a1_zIt’s ironic that she was often dismissed as an illustrator because she penned some of the most iconic advertising images of the early 20th century. Not only was she famous for her Dolly Dingle work, her work is the basis for the early Campbell’s Soup campaign. Those apple-cheeked babies with the stubby noses and fat little legs were her hallmark.

Drayton’s early work often focused on the lives of children, and she drew extremely stylized children and animals. When adults showed up in her drawings, it’s notable that they were far more elegant, stern, and refined than the chubby babies that dominated her imagination. Note below, the huge, round, stylized baby in comparison with the young, slim, beautiful mother in Victorian fashion. Her comics that appeared in fashion magazines were decked in Art Nouveau flourishes.

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Her animals have the same round, tiny faces and round eyes as the babes. They are also just as naughty, guarded and precocious, frequently friends and equals to the children. In Drayton’s world, kids and animals were sweet, mischevous darlings, and the adults around them were stern, stiff-backed, and shallow.

OldDesignShop_3KittensGraceWiederseimDraytonPC

From what I can gather, Drayton was extremely prolific, drawing for Campbell’s, Dolly Dingle, collaborating with her sisters, and doing many of the one-off prints like the ones I purchased by chance this month. She drew ads and Valentines and postcards and also completed many fine art portraits of elegant women in fine Edwardian dress.

The paintings I picked up are deft little paintings, simple and practiced. Reportedly, in Drayton’s later life, she was an alcoholic who tried to capitalize on her early fame to keep herself financially afloat by painting these simple one-frame characters for children and collectors. Equally likely is that she was just a single old artist trying to make ends meet during the Great Depression.

For me, this was — as a Twitter pal put it — an Antiques Roadshow moment. Getting the back story is nearly as gratifying as making the score.