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updated: 7/19/2012 12:37 PM

What is the value of these spoons I inherited?

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By Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson

Q. At age 85 and 10 months, I seek your expertise in identifying the value of these four spoons that I inherited from my mother-in-law. I received them many years ago, and she claimed they were very old then. They appear to be sterling silver with a gold wash over the entire surface. They are marked "Christofle," and have another hallmark with a scale. An Ohio historical society identifies "Christofle" as an early Ohio silversmith probably from France.

A. With all due respect to the Ohio-based historical society, which we chose not to identify with its specific location, we beg to differ.

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Yes, we know there is a rather vague reference to a silversmith working in Ohio who was named "Christofle." He was briefly mentioned in "Early Ohio Silversmiths and Pewterers, 1787-1847" by Rhea Mansfield Knittle, but we are sure these spoons were not made by this person. Instead, they were made by a company founded in Paris by Charles Christofle in 1839 and operates to this day.

Why do we believe this? There are a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the fact that the marks shown are associated with this Parisian Christofle company. In addition, the pattern, shape and manufacturing details we can see on these spoons are not congruent with those of an early-19th-century Ohio maker.

The Christofle family established a jewelry-making business in Paris in 1793. They were makers of sequins, mother-of-pearl buttons, jewelry parts, cloth with silver threads and epaulets for French army officers. In 1830, Charles Christofle took over the management of the business and began to expand it internationally.

However, the real business coup did not occur until 1842, when Christofle purchased the rights to exploit patents held by Great Britain's Elkington and Co. and by Count Henri de Ruolz. This led the company into the silver- and gold-plating business using electrolysis, and it established Christofle as a leader in the worldwide manufacture of tablewares.

It is our opinion that the four spoons in today's question are not sterling silver (i.e., items made from metal that is 925 parts per thousand pure silver and is often expressed as either .925 or 925/1000). Instead, they are base metal covered with a comparatively thin layer of pure silver. It is true that Christofle did and does make solid gold and silver items (some were .800 silver, others .950 and reportedly still others were sterling silver as discussed earlier), but the most commonly found items from this company are silver-plated.

Pieces of French .800 or .950 silver made since 1838 should have the head of Minerva stamped on them, but these spoons do not. This means that they are silver-plate, and not solid silver, but they are still fine-quality wares that are desired by consumers and collectors around the world.

The pictures we have are rather poor and we have no idea how large or small these four spoons might be, and since we cannot see the entire piece, we cannot even determine the pattern. However, these pieces do appear to be from the third quarter of the 19th century (say, circa 1870) and, if they are a good size, should be valued in the $400 to $500 range for the quartet.

• Contact Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson at Treasures in Your Attic, P.O. Box 18350, Knoxville, TN 37928.

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