When friction matches first became widely used in the 19th century, they solved the long-awaited need for self-igniting portable fire sticks. Although the "fire inch-stick" is thought to have been created in 577 A.D. China, it wasn't self-igniting, and the sulfur-permeated wood still required that a fire be started elsewhere first. After a series of discoveries and experiments that took place over a millennium, friction matches were invented and perfected, bringing with them much-needed convenience. But they also brought a couple of problems: loose matches could easily get wet, rendering them useless; more significantly, matches carried loose in pockets could rub against each other and catch fire in the unsuspecting victim's clothing.
Fooled By Fakes
Fooled By Fakes
Such incidents made it clear that these "Lucifers," as they were named by London's first commercial match business owner, needed to be carried safely and protected from moisture in their own containers, and the match safe, or vesta case, was born. Although these cases were designed to serve a utilitarian purpose, many interesting varieties were crafted, from intricately embossed themes and jeweled inlay to advertising and souvenir; there were even those that served double duty, combining match safes with dice holders or candle holders (though some combinations can be later marriages). There were also unique figurals - the Cooper Hewitt online collection shows unusual figural match safes in the shape of guns, shoes, houses, fish, cigars, characters, and others.
Match safes are highly collectible and can be quite valuable; one of the highest auction sales for a single safe was in excess of $150,000, and many more have sold in the hundreds or thousands of dollars. Of course, this gives fraudsters lots of incentive, and there are a huge number of fakes in the form of fantasies and reproductions to be found. To understand how to tell the difference, I spoke with George Sparacio, co-founder and officer of the International Match Safe Association and collector of match safes for over 30 years. In order to help educate fellow collectors about the fantasy and reproduction match safes in the market, he purchased over 100 modern copies of authentic vintage and antique match safes in his collection to show the differences side by side.
Although fraudsters are getting better at creating fantasy and reproduction safes, the majority have telltale signs you can look for. Start by looking for conspicuous seams; old match safe surfaces are smooth where pieces have been joined, while many newer pieces have obvious seams. On some newer safes, you may see grinding marks from power tools on seams. Another sign of a modern piece is a poorly fitting lid - one that is off angle, doesn't quite close all the way, or has some movement. Since one of the purposes of match safes is to keep matches dry, an ill-fitted lid wouldn't make sense and would not have existed.
Tension bars and their construction can also hold clues to modern pieces or replaced tension bars on vintage pieces. In most vintage and antique tension bars, you'll usually find rivets, crimping and multiple pieces, though some may be of a simpler construction. However, tension bars in modern safes may be thicker and cut from a rod, then soldered into the safe; others may have very thin tension bars and thin springs. Studying the different tension bars in authentic safes will help you more easily recognize modern construction.
Look at the design on the safe - is it crude, blurry or does it lack detail? Those are sure signs of a fantasy or reproduction. If you compare it to a picture of its authentic counterpart, you'll easily see the difference. Tortoiseshell has been applied to some low-end safes to increase their value. The tortoiseshell pieces are glued on (glue wasn't used on vintage and antique pieces); use a black light to determine if there's glue - it will fluoresce. Be on the lookout for cast pieces, which may be heavier than authentic examples. Cast pieces are also modern-made, whereas vintage safes were stamped. Another important detail is the striker, which is usually a separate piece applied to the base of a vintage safe. The striker should be deep and crisp enough to light a match; however, many modern safes have shallow, weak strikers molded right into the body of the safe.
Knowing the materials used on particular match safes can go a long way toward helping you determine a repro. Many modern pieces are made from sterling silver, but their original counterparts may actually have been made from a different material. A lot of old safes were made from brass, but there was a variety of materials used, including bone, wood, ivory, plated tin and more, as well as multiple materials like a figural sterling fish with a glass eye or a Gorham sterling and antler safe (which sold at auction for $22,705). There are a number of ways to determine whether a sterling match safe is vintage or modern, which we'll discuss in another column.
There's no substitute for hands-on experience; handling and studying the various aspects of a variety of authentic match safes will help you recognize a fake or fantasy piece quickly and definitively. The most important step to gaining knowledge in the field, however, is to join the International Match Safe Association, where you'll have access to a wealth of information beyond what you can find in reference books. You'll also have the unparalleled benefit of advice and knowledge from fellow members with expertise from years of experience, many of whom who have authored books on the subject, and all of whom are more than happy to help.
Special thanks to George Sparacio for information and images courtesy International Match Safe Association.
At A Glance:
Signs of a reproduction or fantasy:
1. Poorly fitted lid
2. Weak tension bar
3. Blurry or poor details
4. Wrong material
5. Shallow striker
The images are of authentic vintage/antique match safes. The enamel butterfly motif from 1895, the gauntlet from 1895, and the dog from 1880.
Reference books, websites and collecting groups are the best ways to keep from being fooled by fakes. Here are a few: International Match Safe Association (matchsafe.org); A History of Match Safes in the United States by Audrey G. Sullivan; Exceptional Match Safes by Neil Shapiro.