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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

What Costs a Fortune New, But Few Want It? The Family Silver ─ Part Two

Would you rather have the money or the stuff? That is a question I often ask myself and my readers. The answer often comes down to a contest between sentimental value and market value ─ the old heart-versus-head dilemma.

In these days of high gas prices and soaring inflation, the head is winning. As folks look around their homes for what they might cash in, they often open the family silver chest.

Margaret Ingraham, of Syracuse, NY, recently did just that. Now, if anyone has a reason to be sentimental about the family silver it’s Ingraham. Her maternal grandfather worked for Oneida, and her mother had a set of sterling from that company. Nonetheless, Ingraham, age 58, cashed in the family silver a few weeks ago.

“I had great respect for my grandfather, and this silver was special to my mother, but there comes a point where you have to be honest,” she said. “I didn’t need it, and the kids didn’t want it.”

Can’t argue with that.

I, on the other hand, fall into the sentimental camp. Although the Towle El Grandee (1964) Sterling is not a pattern I would have picked, I am not ready to give up the silver my mom left me. When I bring out that felt-lined box for a special occasion, I flash back to the beautiful tables Mom used to set for family holidays, and the pride she took in owning sterling silverware. (She stored it under her bed to hide it from burglars.)

Neither of us is more right, but if you, too, have inherited the family silver, you should know what you have and what it’s worth. However, before you imagine some giant windfall, don’t base “worth” on what the silver you own would cost new today, or even used.

“Although new sterling flatware costs around $1,000 a place setting, you can barely give it away used,” said Sandy Bourbonnais, owner of Silver Superstore, a Seattle-based online and brick-and-mortar store, which she and her husband opened 23 years ago. “Everyone has sterling they want to sell, so unfortunately there’s an influx of used pieces, which often sell for next to nothing.”

Ouch. To test her theory, I ran the numbers using mom’s silver as a basis. I hope you’re sitting.

A new 46-piece set of Towle El Grandee sterling, which is still available, retails for $13,000, Bourbonnais told me. I mute my phone to cough. I have 52 pieces ─ 12, four-piece place settings, plus four serving pieces, which would bump that bill up to $14,000. Hold that thought.

A visit to Replacements Limited, a company that sells used silverware online, shows that I could buy a used 45-piece set of El Grandee for just under $3,000, about 75 percent less than new.

But, if I wanted to sell my set to a company to resell, Bourbonnais said, “You can expect to get only 15 to 20 percent of what they will sell it for.” Or, in my case, $500 to $600.* That makes sense when you realize resellers have to cover the costs to hold the merchandise in inventory (sometimes for years), maintain, insure, market and package it, and still make a profit. You can try also selling it yourself, but good luck.

Thus, many sell their silver for its melt value instead. I took my silver chest to Orlando Estate Buyer, in Winter Park, Fla., where owner Daniel Montesi weighed it in troy ounces, and, based on that day’s silver price, offered to buy it for $1300 ─ one-tenth what it would cost new, and less than half of what it would cost used. And that is just how the world works.

Ingraham sold her silver, an assortment of 40 or so pieces, for melt value. She got $865 and divided the money among herself and siblings. She used her share to pay a car bill. “My grandfather grew up in the depression. He, of all people, would understand,” she said.

Montesi believes those who cling their silver for sentimental reasons are kidding themselves. “When you remove the lie you’re telling yourself, it’s really not sad to sell if you want the money.”

Meanwhile, silver preservationists, like Martin Biro, part owner of Biro & Sons Silversmiths, in San Francisco, says, “To us, melting sterling silver is like burning books or art.”

So, there you have it. Two sides of the silver dollar. In the end, the decision to keep or sell comes back to whether you want the silver or the money. If you decide to keep it, here’s how to care for it:

· Avoid the dishwasher. It’s best to wash sterling by hand with warm soapy water. Dishwashers can dull silver because the alkaline in dishwasher soap will cause it to lose its luster, Biro said. Newer dishwashers tend to be even harder on silver than older models. While handwashing is ideal, experts add, if that’s keeping you from using your silver more often, then put it in the dishwasher. Use liquid detergent. If the silver dulls, so what? It can be restored. “Worst case, in 10 years you have to bring it to someone like me to refinish it, and that’s ok,” Biro added.

· Keep it cool and dry. Once washed and completely dried, store silver in a flannel-lined box or in a drawer in a place with little temperature change, like a china cabinet. Avoid garages or attics where extreme temperature changes will accelerate oxidation.

· Polish with paste. When your silver needs polishing, opt for silver polish or paste that you rub on and buff off, Biro said. Avoid dip formulas or products that require immediate rinsing. Their acids can harm the finish.

· Use it. The best way to keep your silver from tarnishing is to use it. “If you’re lucky enough to have a set of sterling, use it every day,” Bourbonnais said. “Don’t wait for a special occasion.” Besides, experts agree: Food tastes better on silver.

* A week after this column ran in newspapers, Replacements answered my inquiry, Their initial offer to purchase my 52 pieces of silver, if the silver were in mint condition, which they would determine upon review, and not including shipping, which would be at my expense, was $859.

CAPTION: The great silver irony ─ The market value of silver flatware, like this service for 12 of Towle El Grandee sterling, ranges from $14,000 to buy it new or, since buyers are scarce, one-tenth that amount to sell it for a melt value. Photo courtesy of Marni Jameson.

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