Once I had the tray at home I was certain that, marks or not, I loved it. I logged it into my tracking system for new finds: Pierced Botanical Silver Colored Tray, 12.25 by 19 inches, 2.1 pounds.
The very first thing I did as soon as that was done was research the foliage on it. Googling almost immediately confirmed to me that it was a chestnut tree—given their distinctive leaves and the knobby appearance of the chestnuts themselves—and I felt a little twinge of pride that I had guessed it correctly at first glance. Specifically, it was a Horse Chestnut, common to Europe (and, to be accurate, not a true chestnut but so-named anyway). It's also sometimes called a Conkers tree since it's used for that game in Great Brittain. It's indigenous to a small area of Europe, but planted worldwide for its beautiful foliage and flowers.
This dictated my next step, which was to take to the far flung corners of the Internet by visiting every reference site I've ever been on to search for its maker and related items. Marrying terms like botanicals, chestnuts, silver, silverplate, tray, serving, Art Noveau, Jugendstil, European, trees, leaves, and the like in myriad combinations yielded not one thing that looked even vaguely like my tray in fact or in style, and absolutely no information on possible silversmiths or countries of origin. I tried for a few hours, and found not one thing.
Striking out left me not only disappointed (and my pride now somewhat deflated), but with no choice but to move on to manual labor: i.e., cleaning. I got out my metal polishing supplies (I usually use either Flitz or Maas when unsure of the metal content) and while watching TV at night with my partner I began the lengthy task of cleaning the front surface of the tray. It took about an hour and a half of fairly vigorous work, but I managed to get most of the heavy tarnish off. I put it aside and finished watching the movie.
The next day, in much better light, I examined my handiwork. Overall the tray was beautifully lustrous, but with a good deal of deep black tarnish in the crevices still. I looked over the tray closely, especially the dents I had noticed on first picking it up. Because the tray surface was shiny and the dents still tarnished they had taken on definite shapes, although they easily might have been from where something hard knocked against it.
I got out my loupe to look at them, and the only thing I could make out with any certainty looked to be a flower, a five petaled flower very much like one of the Zapf Dingbat characters that I've used as a graphic designer over the years. It did not resemble any of the fine metal marks I was familiar with, and a flip through some reference books and sites I usually refer to came up empty. The other mark was roughly rectangular but it was not clear what it was either, and it was even tinier. Since I've found a lot of items marked over the years that have turned out to be of little significance or value, at this point I was beginning to feel skeptical that these might indicate anything of real interest.
More Googling ensued. It took some digging (quite a bit, actually), but eventually the specific search for "flower shaped silver marks" yielded an international marks webpage that showed a flower with a head inside. While I was excited to come across it, I was even more skeptical since the highly detailed mark seemed to mock my tiny, crude impression, and I started to believe that my tray may be either a copy or an attempted fake. I polished it a bit more with a Q-tip to see if I could tease out any more detail, and I carefully stacked up my loupe and a magnifying glass at the same time to attempt the greatest possible magnification. If I held all of them just right, at just the right distance and angle from one another, I could suddenly see there was a lot going on in those tiny dents.
- The flower had a woman's head inside it, and what appeared to be a 3 on the left and an A on the right
- The other mark was J•L reversed out in a sort of notched rectangle
These facts, combined with my earlier web investigations led to more discoveries:
- The larger mark indicated solid silver by the 3 on the left (at 80% pure silver)
- It also showed the city of origin by the A on the right (for Vienna)
- The year of manufacture was sometime between 1867-1922 since the marks date from then (and that dating aligns well with the style of the tray with its Art Nouveau feel)
- The JL would therefore stand for the initials of an Austrian silversmith or a foundry
My energy and drive renewed, I attacked my web searching with zeal, my fingers flying over the keyboard, homing in on the final piece with the feeling of the inevitable building as I came closer and closer to solving the puzzle. When I saw "Directory of Austrian Silversmiths" appear in my Google results I was quite literally on the edge of my seat as I craned forward with anticipation. I clicked, and there before me was a beautiful list of names… With no less than 23 separate silversmiths with the initials JL working during the time period in Austria. And not one reference with the actual maker's marks in them.
Perhaps this was going to take a little longer than I anticipated.
To be concluded in Part 3…