COLUMN-Selling the family silver might not make you rich

Wed Jun 25, 2014 12:21pm EDT

(The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.)

By Amy Feldman

NEW YORK, June 25 (Reuters) - Like a lot of American couples in the late 1950s, my parents got a set of sterling silver flatware for their wedding. And also like many, they have not used it for many years.

So this spring, with my parents looking to move and my sister, brother and I uninterested in silverware that requires regular polishing, I started looking to sell it.

Even though my parents' full-service set for 12 was from a reputable manufacturer, Towle, and in impeccable condition in a blue-velvet-lined wooden box, selling it turned out to be neither as easy nor as lucrative as we had hoped.

"Do not expect your 19th- or 20th-century flatware is going to be worth a lot of money," says Matthew Erskine, a lawyer and principal at the Erskine Co, a Wooster, Massachusetts-based strategic adviser to entrepreneurs and collectors.

If you have high-end Tiffany, that is better than mass-market sterling flatware by the likes of Towle or Reed & Barton. "They cranked that stuff out like popcorn," Erskine says.

Still, even if what you have is not worthy of "Antiques Roadshow," you will want to get a sense of what you have. Real sterling silver should be identified with the number .925 marked in miniature print. Other details may be noted as well.

Picking a buyer means venturing into unregulated turf, where it is easy to be ripped off unless you know your stuff.

Be careful of buyers that advertise heavily or want to do a quick deal. And be aware that regardless of where you sell on the open market, you will owe taxes on the gain, at the special 28 percent rate for collectibles.

Start with the most high-end buyer on your list, and work your way down, advises Stuart Slavid, a vice president at auction house Skinner Inc, one of whose specialties is silver. That way you will have a better chance of getting the best price.

Slavid figures that some 75 percent of those who bring in silver have something worth more than melt value. Certain patterns by Tiffany and Gorham are particularly prized by collectors, he notes.

OUR SALE

I did not think our silver was especially valuable, so I started by sussing out what it was selling for on eBay and Replacements Ltd, a company that sells sterling flatware by the piece and posts all its retail prices online.

Replacements was selling a teaspoon in our 1958 Awakening pattern at $35.99. A large serving spoon went for $79.96.

I was pretty sure our items would be worth more at resale than as metal, especially since silver prices had fallen to around $19.50 per troy ounce from their 2011 peak near $50.

But getting a good price proved less simple. I contacted Replacements, which I calculated was offering the 72 items in our set for about $2,800. They offered to pay around $700.

I also contacted Classic Replacements, which had the advantage of being within driving distance, but they had no interest in our pattern. A friend of a friend with a retail store offered just $500.

I could have gotten more quotes from silver buyers, such as Antique Cupboard, or even talked with an auction house like Skinner.

In retrospect, I wish I had, but it seemed that melting would be a better deal.

Refiners buy all types of metals and pay based on their melt values. Sterling is 92.5 percent silver, and there is also a little bit of loss during the melting process; a good refiner should pay 90 percent of the melt value.

If you weighed your silver at home, keep in mind that an ounce of sterling silver is 84.3 percent of a troy ounce of silver, which is how the price is quoted. You do not need a middleman to sell to a refiner.

A few refiners got good online reviews. I chose Northern Refineries. It was willing to buy the knives, which many refiners refuse because the blades are stainless and there is filler inside the handles to create the appropriate weight.

My parents packed their flatware, and shipped it off a few weeks ago, making sure to insure the package. The company promised to pay 90 percent of the value of the silver after melt, at current prices.

We waited.

When my parents received the check earlier this month, it was not as high as we had hoped, but it was far better than the other offers we'd received: $1,052.

Now we just have two sets of china to sell. (Editing by Beth Pinsker and Lisa Von Ahn)

FILED UNDER:
A couple walks along the rough surf during sunset at Oahu's North Shore, December 26, 2013. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Find your dream retirement town

Florida? Hawaii? Reuters has teamed up with Zillow to give you the power to customize a list of your best places to retire.  Video | Full Article