Tips For Buying Metalware

by Bruce Johnson


A reader recently wrote to me regarding a piece of hammered copper metalware he was thinking about buying. It was unsigned, which left him in a quandary whether or not he should add it to his collection. Naturally, price had to be a consideration, but assuming that without a shopmark it was not over-priced, here were some thoughts I shared with him:

First, the lack of a shopmark does not automatically classify a piece as being inferior. There are many reasons why even a major shop let pieces slip out without a shopmark. It might have been a special commission never intended for a retail showroom. It might have been made by one of the firm’s employees on his own time. It might have been finished late on a Friday and shoved into a shipping box before it could be stamped or labeled. Or maybe they had run out of decals or labels that day, or someone had misplaced the punch.


Lots of reasons.


As David Cathers said long ago, the shopmark only confirms what the piece itself is telling you.

So, with a piece of metalware, signed or unsigned, I consider the following, knowing, of course, there are exceptions to every rule:


    • How heavy is the metal? The thicker the gauge, the heavier the metal — and more often than not the better the piece.
    • Was it stamped or pressed as opposed to being hammered by hand? To be stamped by a press or formed over a wooden mold, the metal generally had to be thinner and lighter in weight.
    • If it is hammered, what is the quality of the hammering? Are the “dimples” tight and evenly spaced, which required more time, more effort, and more expertise?
    • And does it have any damage, such as dings and dents from being dropped?
    • Has it been polished? Natural oxidation after polishing rarely achieves the same depth of color as does the original chemical bath that turned shiny copper into dark copper.
    • Has it been repatinated? I would rather have a piece that had been repatinated rather than polished, but I don’t want to pay the same for a repatinated piece as I would an original finish. Take a close look at the underside of a bowl or platter. If it is perfect – no scuffs or scratches – then the piece might have been repatinated. Time to ask the seller more questions….
    • Finally, is the form pleasing? In this regard a piece of hammered copper is no different than any work of art. The size, the proportions, and the design have to appeal to your heart as much as to your brain.


    Sometimes you can’t explain it, but then sometimes you don’t have to.


    – Bruce Johnson