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James I silver shell-form spice or sugar box – £23,000 at Woolley & Wallis.

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Designed with a realistically chased scallop shell-hinged cover and snail feet, the 10.3oz piece bears the maker’s mark BT, possibly for Balthasar Trimson, London 1611.

It was given as a wedding present in 1936 to Sir Godfrey Nicholson and his wife Lady Katharine, the fifth daughter of the 27th Earl of Crawford, and passed by decent to Baroness Emma Nicholson of Winterbourne. Estimated at £15,000-20,000 at the auction on April 16, it took £23,000.

A similar box, dated c.1609, was offered at Sotheby’s 2005 New York sale of the Charles Poor collection but failed to get away against an estimate of $40,000-60,000. It had been bought at Christie’s Hanh Collection sale in New York five years earlier at the high silver tide for a premium-inclusive $149,000).

The Salisbury spring sale also included a massive set of 70 plates and soup bowls made by Robert Garrard of London in 1828-29.

Bearing the emblem of the 54th (West Norfolk) Regiment of Foot (1755-1881), these were consigned on behalf of The Honourable Society of The Middle Temple, one of London’s Inns of Court.

They had an intriguing history: the colonel of the regiment, on hearing rumours that the War Office was to impound excessive officers’ messes funds, bought the silver as property was to be exempt.

Weighing about 1170oz in all, their melt value would be around £14,000. Here the total hammer bid came to around £33,000 or £41,500 with premium. Overall 85% of the 558 lots at Salisbury got away.

“The market is jogging along well enough but what we really need to see is younger collectors,” said Slingsby. “The days of people retiring on good pensions and looking around for areas to start collecting are coming to an end.”

The slew of spring silver sales in the UK regions brought varying degrees of reaction among auctioneers.

Both trade and private buyers happily competed to pay top dollar to secure the best in class

‘Return to popularity’

Among the most enthusiastic was Steven Collins at Cheffins. His April 11 jewellery and silver sale was not notable for any outstanding stars among the 450 lots, which made the overall response from buyers the more encouraging.

“Both trade and private buyers happily competed to pay top dollar to secure the best in class,” said Collins.

“Only a few years ago the silver market was seeing decorative items selling for little more than scrap value. However, the prices achieved prove its return to popularity among both trade and private buyers, especially for the more unusual and older examples.”

‘Silver remains inexpensive’

Collins’ enthusiasm about the market is not, however, shared by all. Even after his April 9 event at Lawrences (25% buyer’s premium) of Crewkerne – when 91% of the silver lots sold to a total of £340,000 – specialist Alex Butcher was very cautious.

“Silver remains inexpensive,” he maintains, taking the long view back to the 1950s when a good, but not exceptional, piece of silver “could sell for £500” (say £20,000 in today’s money) and the ’60s when “all sorts of societies were being formed to buy silver tea caddies or Hester Bateman material and so on”.

The best silver of the tablewares at Lawrences was a pair of cast silver gilt candlesticks by Thomas Pitts, London 1806.

Standing 10½in (26.5cm) tall, they were decorated in relief with a riot of rococo flowers, scrolls, grotesque masks, reptiles, insects and molluscs.

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Thomas Pitts candlesticks, London 1806 – £6800 at Lawrences.

A viscount’s coronet and the crests of Duncan and Haldane above their mottos were an indication of their quality. The pair went to the London trade just shy of the upper estimate at £6800.

Heming épergne

Somewhat unfashionable as elaborate table silverware is, fine examples do find buyers, as evident at Lewes auction house Gorringe’s (21% buyer’s premium) on March 12 in the form of a Thomas Heming (London 1763-65) épergne.

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Thomas Heming (London 1763-65) épergne – £11,000 at Gorringe’s.

Engraved with the Heneage family crest, it comprised a lattice pierced and rocaille chased domed base and eight detachable scrolling arms, four with circular shallow dishes and original glass inserts and four with pierced hanging baskets. It sold at a mid-estimate £11,000.

Victorian grandeur

Doubling expectations at Ewbank’s (24% buyer’s premium) Woking sale on March 21 was a London 1899 jardinière, by W&C Sissons, with embossed scrolling and foliate decoration. A lot of silver at 94oz, it sold at £4200.

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London 1899 jardinière by W&C Sissons – £4200 at Ewbank’s.