The April 16, 1912, Boston Globe newspaper reporting the sinking of the Titanic was massively reproduced as a souvenir item. A 2010 online auction listing correctly identified the paper as a reproduction, but the fact that there were multiples offered for sale was also a dead giveaway.
Reproductions, counterfeits, copies, knock-offs, forgeries, facsimiles, replicas, phonies, fakes . . . It doesn’t matter what they are called, these items are the scourge of the antiques and collectibles world. Not only can they result in fraudulent purchases, but they also drag down the value of their authentic counterparts because the buying public is justifiably afraid to purchase something that might not be real.
Often, reproductions are honestly labeled as such and sold as decorative items for the home and garden. Sometimes they are advertised as inexpensive substitutions for those who can’t afford an original but still want to enjoy the artistic merits of a classic collectible (like a Tiffany-style lamp). They might be sold as reenactment equipment or props for movies. Suppliers of these novelties are filling a need and don’t intend to deceive. But once those pieces get on the secondary market, the identifications can get lost, removed or covered up. In addition to resellers who purposely defraud, these pieces are often resold to the public by the unassuming and the uneducated.
A reproduction can usually be identified fairly readily when it is examined in person and compared to an authentic item—the workmanship and materials just aren’t the same. But Internet buying is tricky. A single online photograph can be eerily deceptive and many fakes look pretty good on a computer screen. Is there anything an e-buyer can do? Happily, yes.
1. Know the Honest Reproductions
Education is the key to identifying counterfeits. Items openly described as reproductions are sold all over the Internet. To find them, simply browse for a favorite collectible along with the word “reproduction” or “replica” or a similar adjective; it’s that easy.
Look at the photos on those websites and learn the characteristics of the replicas so they will be easily recognizable when resold (by someone else) later. Paint, hallmarks, colors, dimensions and attaching hardware are all examples of things to examine. For example, Facsimile Dust Jackets L.L.C. is a company that honestly prints the word “Facsimile” on the inside front flaps of their dust jackets. With that knowledge, a buyer can recognize that a smudge or scrape in the same location might indicate the removal of the statement by a disreputable reseller.
Here is a very short list to get the drift. The sellers listed here are totally upfront and clearly state that their items are reproductions:
• Reproduction Cast Iron Mechanical Banks
• Reproduction Oil Paintings
• Facsimile Dust Jackets
• Reproduction Prints and Posters
• Reproduction Holiday
• Reproduction Stickley Furniture
• Reproduction Documents and Photos
High-end designer handbags, watches and jewelry are copied extensively. These sellers are not always so forthcoming on their websites. Some will state that the items are fakes and some are more coy, assuming the buyer will understand that rock-bottom prices must indicate knock-offs. Others make subtle changes to the brand name spelling or logo appearance on the webpage header. But reproduction adjectives (and often the word “cheap”) are contained in the verbiage so the sites will easily appear in a web search. These sites should always be checked for similarities before buying designer accessories online.
A 2011 online auction listing honestly described this mechanical bank as a 1950s reproduction of a turn-of-the-century J&E Stevens model. It has a patent mark of 1888 and a stamp that identifies it as a reproduction. But the stamp can be removed and other resellers have incorrectly described the bank as an 1888 original.
2. Know the Dishonest Reproductions
Dishonest reproductions were made with the intent to deceive and suppliers of these items are not going to sell from a website. However, searching for the same reproduction keywords as above will also lead to a variety of websites and blogs for collectors’ societies, art institutes, auction houses and antiquarian associations where experienced buyers and honest dealers are happy to share their abundant knowledge on the specific details of counterfeit items. Many of the sites show an authentic piece next to a fake with point-by-point comparisons. The information is usually extensive and can prevent buying mistakes.
Here is a very short list of educational sites to get started:
• 1950 Coca Cola Trays
• Salvador Dali
• Meissen Porcelain
• McCoy Pottery
• Civil War Flags
• Beatles Signatures
• Louis Vuitton Bags
• Gallé Art Glass
A 2011 online auction listing used excellent terminology for this sale, describing the pair of porcelain whippets in the Staffordshire “style,” calling them modern reproductions and stating they are not original. Modern porcelain dogs are often falsely advertised as old Staffordshire by resellers.
3. Ask Specific Questions
Many resellers (especially ones who mean to deceive) post limited information and photos. But once the identifying characteristics of counterfeits are learned (see above), it is possible to ask detailed questions those resellers can’t dodge:
• “What is engraved on the back of the blade?”
• “Describe the hallmark.”
• “Are flat-head or Phillips-head screws used on the joints?”
• “What color is the stitching on the inside pocket?”
• “How wide is the handle?”
If sellers can’t or won’t answer, look elsewhere. Phrases like “guaranteed authentic” and “from my personal collection” mean nothing if they aren’t backed by facts.
Another excellent description is contained in an online auction listing from 2008. The seller describes this Fenton pickle castor as Victorian “style” and calls it a reproduction. The seller also explains that the honeycomb optic pattern insert was made by Fenton (and is stamped Fenton on the bottom) but the metal frame, tongs and lid are imported. This is great detail that can aid the buyer in identifying other replicas.
4. Use Common Sense
Are there 50 listings for your item on various Internet auction sites and electronic storefronts? If it is mass-produced, especially with the same stock photo, it’s probably not a real antique. It’s unlikely that even one Beatle signed a fan’s concert ticket after the show, much less all four. They were too busy escaping out the back door to avoid being mobbed. And a $5,000 Revolutionary War musket won’t be offered at a “Buy it Now” price of $500. If it’s too good to be true, then it’s probably not good and probably not true.
5. Look at Feedback
Yes, all new sellers have to start with zero feedback ratings. But a brand new seller, testing the waters, is probably not going to be offering a $4,000 Chanel necklace as a very first listing—with detailed instructions for international buyers. More likely, this seller was banned from the auction site and has started over with a new identify.
There is strength in numbers. The more all of us know, the better prepared we can all be to avoid buying something that might not be what we want. If you have insight on questionable items that are starting to appear online, please post it for us here.
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books.
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