Five years ago the spot bullion price for silver was about £6 per ounze, a year ago it was £28 per ounze and though it has since fallen back from its peak, it is still trading around £18 per oz today. See chart (courtesy of Bullion Vault). The inevitable consequence? Tens, possibly hundreds of thousands of ounzes of antique English silver – used, carefully polished and treasured by generations of owners – have been melted and destroyed in recent years. And why? Because most domestic antique silver: spoons, forks, hard won trophies and christening cups that sort of thing; are traded by antique dealers close to the prevailing price of silver. In simple terms, a good quality 2 oz George III silver table fork bought for, perhaps, £10 in 2005 can be melted today for over £30. Scale that up to a 64 piece service for 12 people, then to the number of families who owned silver canteens and the numbers become very big indeed, and very sad.
We have been here many times before during earlier economic slumps and most recently during the famed Bunker Hunt price hike of the late 1970′s when speculation by two American oil tycoons, brothers Nelson and William Bunker Hunt, drove the silver price to $50 per ounze. People queued around the block to sell the family silver then, as they did again last year. However, although highly dramatic, the Bunker Hunt price spike was brief. Within weeks of achieving $50, the price was back to around the $10 mark where it remained for years, halting the rush to the furnace.
Of course, the current high price for silver is only one symptom of an overall and global rise in value of precious and non-precious metals such as copper and lead. The rise in criminal activity that this has sparked – notably the theft of railway cabling – prompted a Private Members Bill in Parliament last year aimed at tightening the rules for scrap metal dealers (including those trading in bullion). Key features of the bill were the requirements for thorough record keeping and “cashless payments” to sellers. However, without government sponsorship, the Bill failed to complete its passage through parliament before the end of the Parliamentary Session last month so it has been abandoned.
Although its failure is regrettable, the Bill did not address the cultural implications of the wholesale but entirely legitimate destruction of the fruits of centuries of British silversmithing. The loss of railway cabling, of course, is deeply frustrating to passengers and expensive to rail operators but it can be replaced and repaired. Likewise, the lead on church roofs, or fencing in the local park. Nor is the impact so profound in the market for gold which, at its current price of about $1500 per ounze has undergone an even more dramatic and steepling rise in value since Gordon Brown infamously flogged 400 tons of Britain’s gold reserves in 1999 for about $250 an ounze (net loss to Britain? about £11 billion). As the value of a fine jewel or rare gold artefact still far outstrips its prevailing bullion value, I suspect that, unlike silver. few gold objects of high cultural importance have been destroyed since we were at “Brown’s bottom”.
No such luck for the rafts of perfectly good silverware that have graced and been enjoyed by British households for centuries, nor much comment either from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport which should surely have a responsibility to somehow safeguard the most vulnerable items before they are irretrievably lost (possibly by age? type?maker?) After all, there would be a public outcry if thousands of early British paintings were being burned on a daily basis.
At myfamilysilver.com, we always seek to buy good British antique silver, principally flatware, decorated with crests in the hope of restoring it to the original families. In the last three years, that process has become relentlessly more difficult. The silver is almost literally disappearing before our eyes. Who will act to end the slaughter?