Hi and Welcome. This is a great question. I have lots of tricks that I use. First, not all solid silver is marked. Second, something can be solid silver and not be sterling. Sterling is 925 /1000 parts pure silver. The ofther 75/1000 parts is other metals. Otherwise sterling would be too soft to work with. Some countries work on an 800 standard meaning that the silver is 800/1000 parts pure silver. There are also many varieties in between.
Let's start with coin silver. Coin silver was produced primarily in America during the 19th century. It is often only marked with a makers mark. This silver was made from melted down coins (back in the day when our money contained real silver). Coin silver ranges in the silver purity from 800-950/1000, but most books will say that it is 900/1000 pure silver or thereabouts.
Coin silver makers are listed in various books like American Silver Manufacturers by Enseco.
Other countries: If you see a # XXXXX on a piece of silver like 800, 900, 925 it is generally solid silver. The best book for learning international silver hallmarks is Tardy's Silver Hallmarks.
Okay . . . tricks of the trade when you don't have any books. 1. Familiarize yourself with all hallmarks and always carry a loop. If you're unsure about the marks or there are none . . . . 2. solid silver is generally flexible and silver plate is not. If it is a spoon, it should have some give. 3. Generally solid silver is lighter than silver plate . . . this is because silver is expensive. 4. Smell it . . . if it is silver plate you can generally smell the base metal. Sterling or 800 doesn't generally have a smell. Flatware was made out of silver initially because it was realatively sterile/clean. 5. The powder test. I'm a gal so I've always got some powder on my face. I'll rub my face against my hand and then run the spoon or bowl, etc against the powder. If it has some silver content, then you'll get a black mark on your hand where the tarnish has rubbed off. Be careful with this trick though because silverplate will also tarnish, but it is a good starting point. Gold will generally do the same thing.
My suggestion for starters. Grab some pieces that you own and are marked sterling and some silver plate pieces. Run through these tests until you feel comfortable and can tell the difference. The botXXXXX XXXXXne is that the only way to really know for sure is to test it (and I don't mean simply rub it on a stone), you sometimes need to cut into the piece (below where the plate layer would be). Any questions???
Oh yes. . . just read your already tried . . . EP, EPNS are no good. If something says sterling and weighted, just know that the bottom of the piece probably has sand in it that is weighing it down (there is really sterling silver there, but its not as much as you might think if you are going by weight).
oh, i forgot about weighted, did they do that with knife handles?
I had a hollow handled knife I know was sterling and lost it in a fire, but now have another that seems the same but I see not marks otherwise. If I scratch it to see if plated and it is not, I lower the value.
Knife handles are generally either plated or hollow handle sterling. Anything weighted is generally marked "weighted". Weighted silver will also dent easily.
It is true that if you scratch it and it is plated the value gets lowered. Any marks at all on that knife??
I think it might say stainless on the blade, but it isnt where I can go look right now
One more important thing I forgot to mention. If you ever see any yellow, brown or other color coming through the silver, it is silverplated if it won't polish off.
so sterling knives usually have some markings other than on the blade?
do, not so
The stainless blade doesn't really help because sterling and plate can have stainless steel blades. If you get a chance to look at the marks let my know what they say. Generally sterling knives will be marked right where the handle meets the blade. If is generally very, very tiny so unless you have good eyes, you would need a loupe.
oh, then it might be marked because I feel blind even with my glasses. I will use the loupe :)
thanks so much for all the great info.
Yes, you definately need a loupe!! Any other questions??
no, thats all. Thanks again. I'm going yardsaling tomorrow with my loupe!
Good luck!! I hope you pick up something great!!