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How to Spot a False Collectible

Published: August 26, 2010

How to Spot a Fake

Collecting is a national pastime in America. From postcards to Pez dispensers, it is a hobby that’s fun, enjoyable, and family-friendly. However, the hobby has a dark underside—phonies. The fake collectibles industry is huge—some estimate it generates billions of dollars worldwide each year—and countless people are unwittingly shelling out significant money for stuff that is nearly worthless. Below are some tips that could help collectors avoid fraudulent merchandise.

General tips

1. Use caution when a seller requests privacy. Sometimes, this is for perfectly legitimate reasons. “Sellers will often request privacy when selling higher end stuff,” says Bill Kranz, an appraiser at Antique Helper auction house (antiquehelper.com), “because people are going to want to keep very valuable things safe.” However, when someone is trying to sell counterfeit merchandise, they will often request privacy because they don’t want experts around pointing out their phony product. Whenever dealing with a private seller, Kranz advises that you ask for some form of documentation that you can verify with a secondary source.

2. Ask for a guarantee. In many cases, a seller is unaware that they have a fake or misrepresented item. If you buy it and later find out that it isn’t what you thought, you should be able to return it. Even the most reputable dealers can make a mistake. Dan Ripley, owner of Antique Helper, has a standing policy that if his company mistakenly sells a misrepresented item, they will take it back at any time. “A fake is a fake,” he explains. “They don’t expire.”

3. Cliches can sometimes be, well, cliche. But many are repeated for good reason. “If it seems too good to be true, it probably is,” is golden for collectors. In other words, things that are supposedly valuable should reflect it in the price. There are exceptions—television programs such as American Pickers and Antiques Roadshow highlight items worth much more than the owner thought. But according to Andrea Hastings, also an appraiser with Antique Helper, this is rare. “That doesn’t happen often,” she says. “It’s like hitting the lottery. A person that finds an item like that usually has some idea that it is valuable.” A good rule of thumb is that if someone is knowledgeable about an item, they know better than to grossly undervalue it. If someone found an item in the basement and doesn’t know much about it, it is best for everyone involved if they get an expert opinion. Of course, there are always bargains, but be wary of seemingly outrageously good deals.

4. As with much of life, knowledge is invaluable, and one key reason that people buy false collectibles is a lack of it, according to Hastings. “The best way to know (if something is fake) is to have experience with the real thing,” she explains. “In many cases (where people are scammed), they pick up an item they don’t know about and think ‘Hmmm. This seems like a good deal.'”

The root of this problem is looking at collecting in the wrong way. There are two reasons for collecting: enjoyment and investment. Some make a living via the latter. However, this requires expertise that can only be gained by experience. In many cases it is learned the hard way. “Part of the learning curve is making mistakes,” explains Hastings. “It has happened to everyone on some level.” She and her colleagues recommend that it is best to start by collecting for enjoyment, for multiple reasons. First, value is subjective. There is always worth in something as long as you enjoy it, even if everyone else thinks it’s a bad deal. Second, someone thinking of enjoyment views money spent as permanent, while someone thinking of investment views money spent as temporary. The lure of future returns might induce bad decisions. Another cliche sums up the third and most important reason– “You must learn to walk before you can run.” Collecting for enjoyment teaches you the basics, which you should know before you invest.

Autographs

1. In many cases, supposedly authentic autographs are simply copies of an original. One good way to detect if a signature is a copy is to inspect it with a magnifying glass or run your finger over it (with permission). If it is flat, it may be copied. If it is raised, then it has probably been added mechanically. Pens usually make a detectable imprint. Also, printers leave telltale signs. “A print machine just sees signatures as a function,” explains Kranz. “They do what they are programmed and don’t distinguish between image and signature.” Many modern printers use a dot matrix system, so if the signature is comprised of tiny dots detectable by magnifying glass, it is fake. (Bonus tip: the dot matrix was not around before the 70s, so anything older than that should not have microdots.)

2. Unfortunately, another mechanical signature forger, the “autopen” machine, also makes a detectable imprint. However, they also produce telltale signs. Autopen signatures start and end with a dot detectable by magnifying glass because the machine goes straight up and down when writing and stops and starts abruptly (think sewing machine). People, however, generally use pens at an angle and their writing motion extends beyond where the pen actually touches the page, so the autograph will taper off at the ends. Autopen machines can also vibrate, so be wary of shaky looking signatures. Conversely, perfectly straight lines are not generally created freehand and are also a warning. One final red flag is that if the ink is evenly distributed, the autograph might be mechanical. People naturally put more or less pressure on various parts of their signature.

3. Consider how realistic the autograph is. Autographs from older figures won’t appear on modern things. For example, Teddy Roosevelt would not have signed anything about the 50 states because Hawaii and Alaska did not gain statehood until after his death. Also, celebrities won’t likely sign things unrelated to them. Albert Einstein would probably not have signed a Boston Celtics jersey, and Larry Bird likely would not sign a book on nuclear physics. As with any collectible, don’t be afraid to ask for authentication. It also never hurts to point out things that don’t make sense and ask “Why?”

Antiques

1. Antiques were not originally designed to become antiques; they were made to be used. Therefore, true antiques show signs of wear. A good place to look is where people would come in contact with the item. Handles should show discoloration, smoothness, or other signs of being held; chairs should show signs of being sat in, and so on. Also, genuine antiques will exhibit normal wear and tear, such as chipped paint or minor cracks in the finish.

2. Unfortunately, counterfeiters are aware that antiques should look aged and make things look old. There are several ways to do this, according to Kranz. “There could be chemical discoloration or fading, or marks could be made by hand,” he explains. “In some cases, someone will just bury an ‘antique’ in the backyard for six months.” There are, however, detectable differences with these methods. A good rule of thumb is that “aging should make sense,” says Kranz. If it just doesn’t look natural, be wary. Uniformity is the biggest sign of artificial aging, because things break down a little here and a little there over time, not equally all over. Metal discoloration should vary, and dirt and dust should have accumulated more in certain places. Look at the area of an antique that would have been more exposed. The top of a table or legs of a chair, for example, should look more worn than other parts. Signs of aging should also look worn. For example, wood chipped 50 years ago will look more faded than wood chipped last week. Lastly, if there are two of the same antique, look at both. If they are genuine, they will exhibit differences. Identical or similar signs of aging on both indicates counterfeits.

3. Look at how the antique is made. Older items typically have more attention to detail, so pay attention to the intricacy of the paint, carpentry, etc. Also, keep in mind history. Anything made before the assembly line (pre-1920s) should not show signs of mass production. There should be small imperfections and quirks on an item if it was handmade. Also, Phillips screws, power tools, and circular saws did not become widespread until the 1930s, so they should not be evident in older items.  Finally, look at what is holding it together. If the nails, screws, or staples look shiny and new and the rest looks old, it is probably fake.

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