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  • Writer's pictureMarni Jameson

What to Do With the Family Silver? ─ Part One

Oh, the family silver. It’s the stuff of legends, lore, lust and lawsuits. At least it used to be. Once a requisite on every bride’s registry, today, sterling flatware is a luxury few can afford, and many don’t even want. Buying silverware you have to polish is like buying dishes you can’t microwave.

As a result, sales for sterling flatware have sunk lower than the Lusitania.

“People are not going out and buying sterling flatware when they get married like they used to,” said Martin Biro, co-owner with his brother of Biro Silver, a San Francisco-based silversmith company that their father founded in 1977.

What they are doing is inheriting it. That’s where silver restoration companies like Biro Silver come in. “Our customer is often the mother or grandmother of the bride,” said Biro. “They bring in the generational silver and want to restore it so they can hand it down as a wedding gift.”

Those not fortunate enough to have been handed the family silver can buy a complete 65-piece set (five-piece place settings for 12, plus standard serving pieces) of used silver today for between $1,200 and $3,000 depending on the pattern, Biro said.

That price is a steal compared to buying it new. Sandy Bourbonnais owns Silver Superstore, a Seattle-based company she and her husband opened 23 years ago. “Some people are funny about their sterling silverware,” she said. “They don’t want any that others have used.”

Her company sells only new ─ no used ─ sterling online and through their brick-and-mortar store. A new, 65-piece set sells for between $8,000 and $20,000, Bourbonnais said.

I need to mute my phone to gasp. When I recover, I ask: And who’s buying it?

“Often it’s someone older who has come into some money and who’s always wanted a set, or it’s a grandmother buying a set for her granddaughter as a wedding gift,” she said. “Recently a man in his early 40s came in and wanted a plain set. Younger customers all want very plain patterns. Ornate patterns are not as popular.”

Although fine sterling may not be as sought after as it once was, if a box of it has landed in your lap, don’t just shove it under the bed. Count your blessings, then consider your options:

· Keep it: Given the cost to buy sterling new or used, be grateful you have this family treasure. “I wish more people appreciated the silver handed down to them,” said Biro. “It represents a family legacy you don’t want to lose. When you put it on the table maybe you remember Aunt Mary. To us that’s important.”

· Sell it: That said, if you have two sets of silver, and want to shed one, or you have a set of silver you’re never going to use that no one in your family wants, and that has no sentimental value, consider selling it. The value will depend on how desirable the pattern is, its condition, and whether the set is complete. To get an idea of market value look online to see what similar items sold for on eBay. Bourbonnais mentioned the following U.S. companies that will buy used sterling: Replacements Limited, in N.C.; Michele’s Estate Jewelry and Silver, in Texas and Colo.; Antique Cupboard, in Wis.; and The Silver Queen, in Fla. Expect to get 15-to-20 percent of what they would resell it for. If you’re not in a hurry, she suggests getting offers from a couple buyers, then list the set on eBay for a bit more.

· Auction it: If you have heirloom silver that is truly valuable, say it’s from Tiffany’s, Reed & Barton or Wallace, and was made in the 40s or before, consider offering it for auction. Be prepared for the auction house to take 30-to-40 percent of the sale price.

· Replace what’s missing: If you love your family silver, but can’t set a table for 10 because you’re missing three forks, fill in the gaps. The same resellers mentioned above can sell you what’s missing. Biro’s company can also use its connections to track down missing pieces. “Based on the scarcity or popularity of the pattern, a missing piece could cost between $30 to $100,” he said. “But if that makes your set complete, the whole set becomes more valuable.”

· Restore it: If your old silver is tarnished beyond what you can do to salvage it, a good silversmith can fix that. Biro charges $6 a piece to professionally clean and machine polish sterling flatware. For a deeper reconditioning and refinishing that will return sterling to showroom condition, the cost is $10 to $12 per piece. “Spending $500 or $600 to return a set of silver to showroom condition might be worth it, especially if you’re trying to sell it at auction,” he said.

· Sell for melt: While the thought of melting artisan silver pains preservationists like Biro, if the pattern isn’t in demand, you may net more by selling the silver for its melt value than by selling the silverware as is. Find out what a pawn shop, a silver exchange, or a local jeweler would pay you for it. Like gold, the price of silver fluctuates. At this writing, the spot price of silver was around $22 an ounce. But there’s more to the equation. Sterling is only 92.5 percent silver; the rest is usually copper. Knife blades don’t count because they’re made of stainless steel. You also need to factor in the cost of refining the metal, and the dealer’s cut. Note that anything silverplated has almost no value.

· Donate it: Giving your silver to a charity lets you help a cause you support, and get a tax deduction. Find a legitimate donation venue, like a school, church or charity, so you can get a bona fide write off. Document the donation with an appraisal, photo and receipt.

Join me next week when I find out what the silverware mom left me would cost new today, and what it’s worth on today’s market.

CAPTION: What’s it worth? Not everyone who inherits the family silver appreciates the value. One five-piece place setting of sterling silver, like this Wallace Grande Baroque pattern, can cost close to $1,000. Photo courtesy of

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