The word “pseudomark” or “pseudo-mark” literally means “fake mark”. However, this definition is a bit too broad and simplistic when applied to silver antiques. In reality, most pseudo-marks used on antique silver were genuine and often registered makers’ marks that had a remarkable resemblance to authentic British sterling hallmarks. Their primary intention was to make items appear as genuine British sterling silver.
Because it can be confusing at times as to whether an item with silver pseudo-marks originated from the UK or elsewhere, or if it is sterling or not, it is important to learn how to recognize these and know a bit about how this practice came about. Our Jewelry & Silver marks guides section (see our Marks4Antiques.com for all of our services), lists authentic and imitation marks, including pseudo-marks, applied by various silversmiths and silverware manufacturers.
To gain some perspective on the history of pseudo-marks, consider that British Laws were very strict in the use of official silver hallmarks, mostly to ensure that Taxes & Duties on precious metals were paid. For this reason, pseudo-marks were applied extremely rarely within Britain. Because some “silver” items made abroad had pseudo-marks, the law demands that all precious metals, including articles of silver, are re-assayed upon entry to the UK and prior to sale. This is the law since the 1840s and remains in force to date. As a consequence, imported wares to Britain were required to have a letter “F” until 1904, which was then replaced by the numerical value of silver content, usually within an oval outline. This re-assaying of imported silver to Britain also ensured that none of these items bear any marks resembling the authentic British hallmarks to the point that they may mislead a potential buyer.
Most silver pseudo-marks are found on pieces made outside Britain. Particularly, 19thC American silversmiths and silverware companies used them to quickly gain acceptance in the domestic US market, which at that time was dominated by British silver imports. This practice was by no means an attempt to sell an inferior product, although I am sure that some minor silversmiths may have tried. Their silver wares were of high quality, very comparable to their British counterparts, and in fact, many early American silversmiths actually emigrated to the US from Europe, thus practically continuing work and transferring their advanced skills and methods to the New World. Many of these pseudo-marks were eventually registered and have now become the primary means by which we recognize, and sometimes date, these early American silversmiths. Most date ca 1830s – 1920s, with a peak of use around 1850s – 1890s.
But the use of silver pseudo-marks was not limited to the US. Other countries and regions also imitated European hallmarks for the same purpose of inspiring confidence in the quality of their silver wares. Canada was also prolific in using such marks and the official Canadian hallmark (a fire-tongued lion within a letter C), was actually not established until 1946, which encouraged the use of silver pseudo-marks in Canada for a bit longer, until ca mid-20thC. It so happens, many Canadian silver manufacturers were American companies that had set shop or subsidiaries there, particularly in Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia. This may partly explain why silver pseudo-marks were in use there as well.
Another region, that of Hanau, Germany, is also notorious of using pseudo-marks on their wares ca 1850s – 1910s. Most of these marks were a mix of French, German and UK hallmarks, and are usually easier to recognize as non-British. Luckily, the number of silversmiths in Hanau was relatively small, so most of their marks are currently documented and correctly attributed. In contrast, numerous short-lived silver companies or minor silversmiths that used pseudo-marks in 19thC America, remain anonymous. To add to this, many Retailers, especially in New England & New York, also used pseudo-marks on silver articles that were frequently made to order by various unnamed local silversmiths & workshops, and those are even harder to research and attribute precisely.
The Canton region in China, including Hong Kong, also produced many silver articles bearing pseudo-marks that resemble UK hallmarks. This was more prevalent around 1880s – 1910s, when most silversmiths in the area were either British expatriates or local silversmiths that had apprenticed under English silver artisans. However, many of these items also had a small mark in Kanji (simple Chinese) that identified them as coming from that region. To a much lesser extent, pseudo-marks occasionally also appear on late 19thC – early 20thC silver coming from South Africa, India and Australia.
In terms of value, silver items with pseudo-marks can be appraised the same way as any other antique using comparables and condition reports. Although the use of pseudo-marks was very occasionally applied on inferior products by unscrupulous merchants, the vast majority are genuine antiques. The only exception is their use on Silverplate, which unfortunately is where we will find most such marks, especially on 19thC American specimens. Silverplated wares were often marked with pseudomarks, but as mentioned above, most such marks have been documented and are available in books or our Jewelry & Silver marks guides.