Monthly Archives: August 2012

Silver Mysteries Solved

Move over Sherlock Holmes, the mysteries of silver are mysterious no longer. Got a piece of American silver? Search the back until you find some marks. 

1. If you see the word STERLING or STER, the item is 92.5% silver. The rest is probably copper or some other metal added for hardness. Save this.

2. If you see the word COIN, it is 90% silver. The word does NOT mean it was made from melted coins. It just means the silver content is the same as that of coins (at least, when coins like quarters and dimes were really made of silver), which was 90%. A little less than sterling, but still quite valuable, with silver selling at about $33/oz. Save this.

3. If you see the letters EPNS, it means there is a thin, thin, thin layer of silver on top of base metal. Those letters stand for ElectroPlate on Nickel Silver. Never mind its name, nickel Silver isn’t silver, it’s an alloy of copper, nickel, and zinc that looks silvery. What little silver there is in that piece was electroplated on top of the nickel silver in a coating so thin, it’s measured in microns, or millionths of a meter. Silverplate can have one micron or twenty or so, and more is better because it won’t rub off as easily, but even if the piece is several microns thick, it isn’t worth the effort of extracting the silver. If you have a piece marked EPNS that is not antique, it has no monetary value, but save it if you can use it. If it’s damaged, toss it in the trash.

The upshot is, if you have silverplate, it has no resale value. (Unless it is old, as in 19th century, in which case the plating is thicker but the real value comes from the piece’s age, not the silver content.) Sterling and coin have resale value, even if dented or squashed, because it can be melted down for its silver.

Fakes on the Wall

The art most commonly faked are prints supposedly made by Chagall, Miro, Dali, and above all, Picasso. There are many, many more fakes out there than there are authentic works of art, and many of those fakes are accompanied by fancy Certificates of Authenticity—also faked, of course. So if you’ve inherited a print signed by one of these artists, assume you have a fake until you can authenticate it. 

How to authenticate something? You need a certified expert to do that. Ask an art museum or large auction house in your city for recommendations, or do some online research. Check credentials. Just because someone says he is a member of the IFAA (International Fine Art Appraisers) or some such professional organization doesn’t mean he really is. A quick phone call to the organization’s headquarters can make sure. In general, local is better–you don’t have to mail your item. Expect to pay at least $100, although some services do not charge when they don’t have to do any research–when the item is so obviously a fake that they can tell at a glance.

Here’s one place you can start for free: the Chicago Appraisers Association. Send them a good photo of your piece in the mail and they will tell you, for free, whether it warrants further research or not. If so, they will then tell you their fee, and you can decide how to proceed. If not, you know you have a fake and can proudly display it on your own wall and let your friends think it’s original. But don’t try to sell it. Their address and further information can be found at

What Am I Going To Do With All This Stuff?

Whether you are the sole heir or one of a hundred, dividing and disposing of a family member’s personal possessions is a daunting job made harder by the fact that few of us are adept at evaluating objects. And before you can decide what to do with an item, you need to know what it is and roughly what it is worth. None of us wants to “sell stupid.” Unless you are a professional appraiser or a museum curator, you probably know very little about the objects your grandparents own. Even your parents’ belongings can be a mystery. Are those spoons sterling silver or silverplate? Are the pearls real or imitation? Is that painting a valuable original or a worthless copy? Are you sure???

This blog accompanies the book, Stuff After Death: How To Identify, Value and Dispose of Inherited Stuff. It is available as an ebook for $4.99. (See or to purchase.)