Monday, October 12, 2015

Should I Use the College of Arms for Identifying a Coat of Arms or Crest?

The answer to whether you should hire The College of Arms in my opinion is a resounding NO. The services they provided me were less than worthless, and of very questionable integrity. I would be loathe to level words against this organization like fraudulent or criminal, but taking money and providing nothing in return in every other business dealing I've ever been engaged in would be considered unacceptable and dishonorable. Yet, this is precisely what they may ask you to accept. But, so you fully understand how valueless is the service they provide, I have chronicled it here so hopefully if you choose to wire them money, you'll understand the very real risk that they will keep your money and do nothing for you except provide lip service.

Here's some background. The College of Arms in London, "...maintains registers of arms, pedigrees, genealogies, Royal Licences, changes of name, and flags." The heralds are appointed by the Queen of England. This group was founded in 1484.  Heady stuff! As they describe, "The individual Officers of Arms are paid nominal salaries, less than £50 per annum, by the Crown, but conduct their professional practices on a self-employed basis." So, in effect, the government provides them no financial support and they earn a living by charging for their research. If you are trying to research a coat of arms, the College of Arms asks that you contact the Officer in Waiting.

So, I went for it. I had an incredible wax seal set in gold and I wanted help tying it to a particular family or organization. I left an email message and was greeted same day by the Officer in Waiting who happened to be one of the pursuivants. This was March 5th, 2015. On the same date, he wrote, 

"Thank you for your enquiry which I have received as Officer in Waiting for the College of Arms. The College of Arms has probably a hundred thousand different coats of arms on record, filed in date order with various nominal indexes, but not computerised. To identify something from a picture or description is extremely time consuming and I normally make a charge of £125 to undertake such a task.

If you would like to send me an image of the arms in question to this email address, I shall be pleased to reply without charge if I recognise them immediately. If not, I shall advise you of my fee."

Encouraged, I sent photos the same day hoping he would recognize it right away to avoid the fee. Time passed and no response from the pursuivant. I followed up about 20 days later to ask if he had a chance to take a look. More than 2 weeks later, I received the following reply, 

"I regret that I do not recognise the arms and cannot do so readily. I should be pleased to search the records of the College of Arms in an endeavour to identify them for you. If I can identify them, I shall tell you when they were first granted or confirmed and to whom.

The College of Arms has never been publicly funded and we have to charge for our time. My fee for this work will be £125 which should be sent to me in Sterling drawn on a British bank in favour of College of Arms (or transferred to my client account) if you wish to proceed."

On June 4th, I took the plunge and sent the £125 + a 6.5% fee via PayPal to his personal account. From then on, I entered a long period of silence. Not even a receipt. I requested to know if he had even received the funds on June 17th and received no response. A month later, I again requested to know if the funds had been received. He finally agreed the money had been received and stated that the work would be completed in 3-4 weeks. I heard nothing and finally wrote him on September 4th to get an update on the work. No response. Again on September 26th, I requested an update. No response.  On October 8th having heard nothing, I wrote and asked for an update and asked if I needed to send a message to the King of Arms.

It was this that finally provoked the pursuivant to reply and miraculously, the research was completed on October 11, 2014-- 5 months since I made payment and 3 months over deadline! I surmised that the analysis would be detailed owing to the amount of time and concentration they must have put into the task, but that's where I was wrong. What finally came back from the pursuivant was that nothing could be determined. He also provided no analysis, for example, describing the seal formally or any indication that he had done anything at all except to say he had flipped through a few books.

Here's the form letter I received via email in full regarding the wax seal, 

"Thank you for your recent email; I am sorry for the delay in writing back to you, but we have been submerged with work over the past few months.

I have now had an opportunity to examine the records of the College of Arms and can report to you as follows.

I first searched the records of the Heralds’ Visitations of the English and Welsh counties during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Officers of Arms went out to each county roughly every generation to oversee the use of arms and to record the pedigrees of the gentry. I also searched the records of grants and confirmations of arms from the Tudor period to the present day.  Sadly, I did not find in any of our records the arms engraved on your ring.

A search in Sir James Balfour Paul’s An Ordinary of Arms (Vol. 1, 1903 and Vol. 2, 1977) was made, but once again nothing was found.

I then looked at Elvin’s Handbook of Mottoes (1971) and Fairbairn’s Book of Crests (1905) for the motto, but did not find any reference to that found on your ring.

I finally turned to Burke’s General Armory (1884), a dictionary of arms that lists those families who might have used armorial bearings with or without the sanction of the Heralds.  Again, I did not find any relevant reference.

I am sorry that our search has proved unfruitful.

Yours sincerely,

[Name Redacted] MSc
Rouge Croix Pursuivant

College of Arms
130 Queen Victoria Street
London EC4V 4BT

T 020 7332 0666"

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Power of Silver Hallmarks

Hallmarks can be extremely powerful and important in silver.  They tell the story of many pieces of silver that is absent on most other kinds of antiques.  For the furniture enthusiast, there are sometimes paper labels or pencil mark signatures, but these are rare.  For silver, the marks are often there, and when they are, you need to pay heed.  The absence of a hallmark can also be significant but we'll get into that later.  In this little article, I want to describe the non-US hallmarks that have been the most important to me in my business dealings.  The photos are pieces I have bought and/or sold some of which are still available at Crescent City Connection in my silver section.  I make a description of some of these marks and use many thematically similar pieces to give those descriptions.  I don't claim these are the best of the best pieces, just items I've been able to trade.

For me, at my current stage of collecting, nothing could be worse on a piece of silver than a simple stamp that says "Sterling" and nothing else.   A piece like this will usually be three things: (1.) American (2.) modern (3.) cheap.  Although rules are made to be broken, most pieces stamped this way will fall into this category.  Let's face it, usually only a piece of which no one can be proud is left unsigned by a maker.  But, wait, Msstom always said to look for the word Sterling on the bottom!  I hate to break it to you, but if you listen to Mom, you will miss out on some of the incredible finds out there waiting for you.  You're doing it wrong...

English Marks
English hallmarks are some of the simplest ones to understand and learning these can be a gateway into many other types of marks.  It's a great place to start.  The English have a well organized, old, and clear system for hallmarking that was put into place long ago in order to collect taxes from silversmiths on their wears (primarily) as well as to identify the maker (secondary).

Traditional English marks courtesy of the
Goldsmith's Company Assay Office
So, the typical English mark is composed of, the maker mark, the lion, the assay office, and the date letter.  The 925 mark shown above is not that common in antique silver in my experience.  The others are nearly all there.  Bear in mind that each large city had an assay office, so these vary.  You will need a table to look up the date mark and these tables vary across assay offices.  So, first identify the town, then identify the date, then look up the maker.

A few additional words on English silver identification:
1.) Occasionally you get two date letters that look a lot alike.  You can usually use the maker mark to figure out the date in these cases.
2.) Very occasionally, you get two date letters that look a lot alike with two makers with the same initials operating during the two different dates.  You will need in these cases to research other pieces of the two makers and compare them stylistically.  It doesn't happen often.  Sometimes you can use this one to your advantage where a seller has misidentified/dated a piece of English silver and has thus undervalued it.
Millesimal Fineness Mark for Britannia
Silver (958)
Pictorial Mark for Britannia
3.) Duty dodgers.  There are fakes and there are unmarked pieces of English silver.  I've not seen them often, but I have occasionally.  They were usually made to evade taxes, but occasionally, a Hester Bateman mark or a Paul Storr mark has been cut out of a lesser piece and then welded into a better piece.  It doesn't happen that often, but you would be advised to look at the mark very carefully when buying big name English silver.
4.) Britannia silver.  I don't run into Britannia silver too often in the US, but it's worth understanding it in case you do.  Britannia silver is 95.8% silver, meaning it is of a higher silver content than sterling.  It can sometimes achieve higher values than comparable sterling silver pieces.  The 100 gram piece above, for example, was sold for around $620 in 2013.

1817 English Silver Cup
Chinese Marks
Hallmarks on 1840 Chinese Export
Mustard Pot
It may seem odd to begin a discussion of Chinese marks at the end of one on English marks, but there can be confusion between the two.  It's important to understand that while Chinese produced silver for centuries before the English arrived, the English had a large influence on the manufacture of Chinese pieces.  Specifically, colonialists had an influence on pieces made for the outside of country market, "Chinese export" silver.  Chinese export silver in the classic sense utilized European themes and tried to imitate European silver.  It isn't clear to me (though I am sure it is well understood) how much volume they were making upon request to match existing sets versus how many were made simply modeling them after other examples.  The end result is the same, European styled pieces were produced by the Chinese.
1840 Chinese Export Mustard Pot
This imitation goes right down to the marks.

Most of the accounts I've read are in agreement that the Chinese were not making silver meant to fool anyone as being English, but rather they wanted to please the European sensibilities.  And further, since these makers did not understand the hallmarking systems, they frequently copied the marks, customizing them to a greater or lesser degree.  At the example above which is a detail of the mustard pot at left, you see that the mark has a sort of rendition of the English lion, the London leopard, and the letter W which could be construed as a date mark.  Because of the similarities of style (see 1817 English cup versus 1840 Chinese mustard pot) and marks.  Fortunately, you should not be alarmed if you accidentally wind up with some Chinese export silver thinking it's English.  It is enjoying a surge of popularity in 2015 and has been for a number of years.  A Chinese export mustard pot like the one above should currently expect a value of around $1,000 if it is by an identifiable maker.

Mexican Marks
William Spratling Amethyst Earrings
Spratling Hallmark
I would just say that there is a huge diversity of marks in Mexican silver.  In modern history, Mexican silver work has been largely focused in Taxco.  To understand Mexican silver from Taxco, you should familiarize yourself with Spratling.  Though he was an American, he launched a fledgling silver production industry that continues today.  He was an interesting character, a visionary and an adventurer.  His pieces are among the most valuable of Mexican silver now.  And most museums with a silver collection have Spratling in their collections.  The pieces with stones and meso-American themes (his  seem to command higher prices and size is also an important factor.  I am of the opinion that Spratling pieces should not be polished.  There is a lot of fake Spratling better discussed elsewhere.  Needless to say, patina helps to authenticate these pieces.  From Spratling, there are a handful of other significant smiths from Taxco that are worth collecting and looking for.  Antonio Pineda, Hector Aguilar, Los Castillos, MATL, and Margot de Taxco are all good makers.

Queen Anne Style Hammered Bowl
Once you get into post-1948 silver, you will see the Eagle marks on pieces up until the 1970s.  There are good pieces in this time period and pieces with an eagle mark are worth a look.  Once you start getting into the Taxco marks that begin with T (like TE-12 or whatever), these pieces are modern and I basically ignore them.  Quality is usually low, mass produced silver for tourists.

Vigueras Queen Anne Bowl
Mexico City Mark on 8 Reales
Coin Bowl
It's also worth noting that you may see the same European influences on Mexican silver that I described above in the Chinese example above.  Mexican smiths were fond of the Queen Anne Style.  Frequently these pieces are hand hammered with traditional Mexican embellishments and I think some of the really fine pieces of Mexican silver are like this.
 You can see it in this bowl by Plateria Vigueras made in Mexico City (with a very non-traditional hallmark).  I show another example of this hand hammered fluted work here in a bowl with an 18th century doubloon (8 reales).  The coin is marked FM for the assayer at the Mexico City mint.  So, it is interesting to note that these are two really lovely pieces of Mexico City where the marks do not explicitly state that in a simple way.  With the Doubloon bowl, it is the assay mark that tells the story.  But with the Vigueras bowl, you have to rely on a book of hallmarks to make that jump.

I may expand this article in the future to include marks from some other places.  If you have questions, additions, or corrections, get in touch.  And hey, check out my little shop.  You may enjoy it!  Happy Hunting from Crescent City Connection