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Unloved Antiques: Reproduction Victorian-Era Spyglasses

by Mike Wilcox (02/19/13).

Despite the “Henry Barrow & Co., London” company mark, this is a reproduction made in the last 30-odd years. High demand and low manufacturing costs resulted in a market flooded with these convincing-looking fakes.

The next item in this series of Unloved Antiques is something that causes big problems in the antique and collectibles market: reproduction scientific instruments; the biggest culprits being optical devices like telescopes, binoculars, desktop magnifiers and periscopes.

Before the 1970s, the chances of running into reproductions of this type were slim because the high cost of production and low public demand just did not make economic sense. The cost of setting up the tooling and reverse engineering simply exceeded any potential for profit.

This all began to change when international trade laws began to loosen up and manufacturing began to move off shore to places where labor costs were a tenth of what they were in North America and Europe. The combination of state-of-the-art factories with computer-controlled milling machines and low labor costs was the perfect formula to reproduce just about anything.

When decorating trends for Victoriana began to boom in the 1980s, values for all things Victorian began to climb dramatically and, for some items, demand exceed supply.

The first such reproductions were easier-to-replicate items like pottery, such as “flow blue” wash-basin sets and Art Nouveau-style chocolate sets. But as technology improved, harder to duplicate items, such as brass spyglasses, harbormaster telescopes and Civil War periscopes began to appear with English-sounding company names like “Henry Barrow & Co., London” or “Dollard, London.” Some even carried names and dates like “Stanley London, 1885.”

The problem now, though, is some of these earlier reproductions like the Henry Barrow example are now more than 30 years old and have developed a convincing patina and marvelous family provenance attached to some obscure, seagoing great-great uncle.

For the most part, dealers and collectors believe the sudden proliferation of antique optical devices is the result of “Antiques Roadshow.” Viewers eagerly began digging through basements and attics flushing out higher-end items like those they saw on the show.

Another consideration is the Internet, which opened up the market for items that were not as rare as we originally thought. Because the market for telescopes was traditionally a highly specialized one, even long-seasoned dealers in a general line of antiques had only a scant knowledge of them. To most, these telescopes were just another shiny, brass Victorian item that sold quickly and were still appreciating in value.

As with all things reproduction, though, one maker after another tried to cut production costs and increase profit. The quality of the reproductions eventually got so shoddy it became obvious to even neophyte collectors that they were looking at fakes, and the market collapsed.

Today, when these reproduction-fake spyglasses are identified, they often sell at auction for less than $50. If they’re spotted, they pull in about $180. For those of you who want one brand new without a dubious family history or dark past, they are still in production, complete with a wooden case, for about $225.

Mike Wilcox, of Wilcox & Hall Appraisers, is a Worthologist who specializes in Art Nouveau and the Arts and Craft movement.

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