Create a Picture with Words

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This image shows five hallmarks identifying a British piece of silver. Although there are five marks here, there are many pieces of British silver with only three marks. These marks do change based on maker, city and date. The delicate and detailed nature of the marks tend to differ them from American silver marks.

They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and a picture can be key when discussing  antiques. Most antique shops field calls from people asking for assistance on what to do with Aunt Betty’s buffet or grandmother’s china. Without the piece or even a picture in hand, the antique dealer must rely on a verbal description  to assess an item. Let’s dive into the language and the important marks that will help you communicate with an antique dealer.


China or dinnerware is a common inquiry so let’s start here. First, turn the plate over and see what is marked on the bottom. There could be up to three types of marks. One, a transfer or decal identification may be there, representing the factory, retailer or pattern. Two, a hand-painted identifier, in many cases, is an artist signature or a pattern number. The third type of mark - an impressed mark - may be harder to see. This mark is made early in the production process and may indicate the country or factory of origin.

The front of a china plate is also important. It may be decorated by hand, transfer or decal and embossed, reticulated or a combination of all of these. Hand decorated is easily identifiable as is transfer decorated (it’s like a decal). So what is embossed? An embossed surface is a raised pattern that you can see and feel. Reticulated is just the opposite, it’s a series of holes that create a pattern.

Whether or not the china is decorated by hand, a design should never be described as “lovely” or “unusual” as these words are subjective. When dealing with an antique dealer, try to give a precise description. For example, the piece is decorated by hand in pink roses in various stages of bloom, ranging in size from a quarter to a silver dollar. 

When you use a detailed description, the more knowledgeable listener can understand what you have or at least get enough facts to research and identify the item. But furniture is a bit tricky. In my article, “It’s All in the Legs”, I discussed different styles of legs and furniture (The Rockport Observer, Vol.2, Issue 2, August 2014; available on website This information could give you a good start in describing furniture.


Most silver, like china, is clearly marked. These marks give clues to an item’s age, country of origin and more. Here in Cleveland, we most commonly find American, English and Mexican silver. American silver can break down into three categories or periods. Currently, silver is marked with the word “STERLING” and may also have the numbers “925” or “925/1000”. These marks seem to have been around since the late 1800s.

Prior to that, not only was the purity of silver different but the marks were also. So you will find the word “COIN”, and sometimes the city of origin or the name of the silver smith. This helps date silver from the 1820s to about 1860s. These identifiers distinguish American silver.

English silver is steeped in tradition and the same marks have been used for centuries. You will find no less than three hallmarks. These small punch marks indicate a lot of information, but if you cannot understand them, there is no problem as long as they can be seen on the silver. Professionals can do the interpretation. English hallmarks can be up to five individually framed icons or “hallmarks”.  They represent maker, silver purity, city and date.

Mexican silver like American silver is marked 925 or 950. These numbers are usually executed in a block-style font with the word “MEXICO”. These are small clues that give very basic information to assist you in communicating.


Glass is a trickier medium to talk about. Hand-blown glass has a clear mark on the bottom, where the glassblower’s tool was positioned. This mark - a pontel - can be rough or polished smooth, creating a small divot. If the item is not blown, it is molded. Mold marks can run up the side of an item and there may be two, three or four of these marks.

The pattern or design can be another identification tool. The pattern can be created by etching the glass with acid, molding or hand cutting and polishing. Waterford is a good example of what hand cut and polished glass looks and feels like with a pattern that is crisp and bright. Patterns that are molded into the glass are softer and duller. Lastly, an acid etched design is a pattern that looks almost frosted and feels slightly raised.

I think that if you are objective and use words that are distinctive like hand painted, you will describe your piece with clarity. Clearer communication will provide a clearer picture of the item at hand. So the next time you leave home without an image, test your skills. You will quickly learn that you have the right words to create a good picture.

Mitchell Sotka

Mitchell Sotka

The Eponymous Antique Shop Owner

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Volume 3, Issue 3, Posted 3:32 PM, 09.01.2015