Wednesday, 20 April 2011

News - 700 years of hallmarking history could go in red tape bonfire (Sheffield)

All gold, silver, platinum and palladium sold in Britain – whether made in the country or imported – must carry a hallmark, a tiny stamp that proves it is contains the correct amount of the precious metal and giving details of its manufacturer and the date it was made. 

The symbols are crucial guide for antique dealers and thousands of amateur collectors, who can find out whether their supposed priceless Georgian coffee pot is the genuine article or a modern replica.
However, hallmarking and the hundreds "assayers" – the independent experts who authenticate and test the metals – could potentially be scrapped as part of a Government scheme to axe as much red-tape as possible. No longer will the experts on the Antiques Roadshow be able to get out their magnifying glass to discover, from the symbols alone, that someone's battered silver salver is a museum piece. 

The Department for Business insisted it is merely seeking views from people about what rules and regulations on Britain's statue book are useful, and which can be culled as part of its Red Tape Challenge, adding that no formal consultation had even started. 

But hallmarking is highlighted as one of the first areas to be examined for simplification and one of the questions in the section says: "Should they be scrapped altogether?". Jewellery makers up and down the country as well as assay offices have expressed horror that such ancient legislation, which has inspired countless amateur antique collectors as well as protected consumers from fraud, is even being considered for the scrap-heap. 

Michael Allchin, the chief executive the Birmingham Assay Office, the biggest of the country's four centres of authentication which stamps 13 million items of gold in a busy year, said: "Hallmarking is paid for by the industry. It's not civil servants doing the job, we're not a burden on the taxpayer. 

"A hallmark is essential for consumers to make sure they are not ripped off. If your wedding ring says 750 that means it is 750 per 1000 parts pure gold, or 18 carat. No more no less." 

He added that it was more important than ever before, with gold at a record price and more people interested in the investment value – and the resale value – to ensure consumers had confidence in the market.
Barry Stevenson, the chief executive of pawnbroker Albemarle Bond, said: "While those in the jewellery industry have sophisticated methods of testing metals, including acid scratch tests, the general public depends on hallmarks, and scrapping them could prove disastrous by creating extra confusion around what is and isn't precious metal. 

"The company is concerned that any move that produces confusion about precious metals could create a market for unscrupulous buyers and sellers of jewellery who wish to mislead consumers on the value of items or pass off non-precious jewellery as the real thing." 

Hallmarking has been on the statute book since 1300, with the Company of Goldsmiths given a charter in 1327 to assay silver and gold. The metal was weighed and stamped at its offices at Goldsmiths' Hall, giving rise to the term hallmark. There are four assay offices: London, Birmingham, Sheffield and Edinburgh, each with their own distinctive symbols, with London marking with a leopard's head, for instance and Birmingham using the anchor. 

A Department for Business spokesman said that they were not picking on hallmarking, it was just one of the 21,895 statuary instruments and the Government was determined to trim some. 

He added: "The Red tape challenge campaign is a powerful new tool for the public to have their say about the red tape that they deal with every day. 

"We want the public to tell us what they think about the more than 21,000 regulations that are on the statute book. Some of these regulations will be vital to protect consumers or employees, but others will be badly enforced or just plain obsolete; putting an unnecessary burden on the businesses that should be focusing on growing their businesses. 


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