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Know Your Metals

By Silas Finch

Many of the most unusual collectibles are metal work pieces. The durability and mutable nature of metals make it the idea material for a tremendous variety of objects, ranging from silverware to jewelry, from fireplace screens to decorative storage tins.

Metal ware comes in a baffling variety of materials, all requiring different methods of care and storage. Any hopeful collector will need to be able to identify them to assess their value and condition. Professional antique dealers will nearly always provide you with accurate information regarding a piece you buy but not always. Metal work collectibles acquired from garage or estate sales are often not identified or identified incorrectly and a trained eye will be vital to protect the buyer from incompetent or dishonest appraisers. 

Brass- Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc. It has a lovely yellowish sheen when polished and was a common metal used for the manufacture of thousands of objects from buttons to musical instruments. Sometimes antique brass objects are nearly unrecognizable due to tarnish. Donít be fooled by that hideous green-black color that might be hiding a beautiful brass antique microscope. A little polish and elbow grease will return the collectible to its original shine.

Antique clocks and other fine metal pieces are sometimes constructed of a material very similar to brass but containing a much higher quantity of copper called Pinchbeck, named for 18th century clockmaker Christopher Pinchbeck.

Bronze- The perfect metal for casting statues. It is an alloy made from copper and tin and has been used for everything from Rodinís Thinker to Art Deco to armor.  It was the most commonly worked metal on Earth for thousands of years. When considering a bronze antique make sure you know which of two common casting methods the piece was cast in. If the statue was cast using the inferior sand method it is undoubtedly a reproduction. Bronze is easily identifiable by its distinct dark, well bronze color.

Chromium- The shiny mirror-like finish on countless twentieth century pieces is often chromium. It was very popular during the twenties as a protective coating for objects as diverse as table lamps, ashtrays, and jewelry. It is applied to other metals through a method similar to electro-plating.

Copper- Copper is an extremely common metal used in the making of household utensils. It was often used to make cook pots, drinking cups, and the like. As copper will over time poison you most antique copper utensils will have an inner coating of tin. When polished copper has a warm brownish color but becomes a flat brown when tarnished.

Lead- Lead was rarely used in manufacture of household items, not because of the danger of lead poisoning, which wasnít understood until the 20th century, but because of the metalís softness. Strangely, and sadly, the most common antiques found made of lead are childrenís toys. It was long a regular practice to make toy soldiers from lead. This was due to the ease of molding lead and the cheapness of the material. Lead is a dull gray color normally but looks silvery when scratched.

Pewter- An incredibly common metal in manufacture of household utensils, drinking cups, and home adornments. It is an alloy made from tin but can also be made with copper, lead, or antimony. Pewter is unusual in that even when slightly tarnished it maintains a charming, if unspectacular color. A heavily tarnished piece may look as if made from lead. In the late 18th century a form of pewter was invented that looked more like silver. It is commonly referred to as Britannia pewter.

Silas Finch is a free-lance writer on a variety of arts and historic topics. He can be reached at Content and