In a previous column, we talked about how to recognize the difference between reproduction match safes and authentic vintage or antique safes of various materials. Now let's chat about how to spot reproduction sterling silver match safes, continuing my conversation with George Sparacio, board member and co-founder of the International Match Safe Association and collector of match safes for over 30 years.
Fooled By Fakes
Sterling Match Safes
Fooled By Fakes
When examining a sterling safe, the hallmarks will tell you plenty. Hallmarks include a date mark, so you need to know or look up the date mark you see on the piece (there are lots of online resources) to decipher it. If you see heavy rubbing or scratching on the hallmark area, especially if it doesn't look natural or match the wear on the rest of the piece, you can be pretty sure someone tried to obliterate a modern hallmark.
If you see the familiar "925" sterling designation stamped into the piece by itself, without any other mark, it was probably made sometime in the 1970s or later, after it was approved by the European Community. This now universal mark was generally not used alone in earlier years, though it may have appeared with additional markings, like a maker's mark. Because there can be exceptions, the mark is a starting point for recognizing repros, but more must be examined along with it.
One mark that definitely distinguishes a modern match safe is the DAB maker's mark. This manufacturer produced high-quality match safes from the 1970s through the early 2000s with no intent to deceive buyers. The company included the required English hallmarks on its safes with a year mark that indicates the modern date of manufacture. This illustrates the importance of reading hallmarks; even though DAB marked their safes honestly, resellers may still misrepresent the safe as vintage or antique, either because they haven't checked the date mark or to intentionally deceive buyers who assume hallmarks indicate an old piece.
Several other makers' marks also indicate a reproduction: CME, BAC, MS, PJM and G, GJ, or either of those within or alongside a diamond shape, along with the 925 mark. Doing an acid test on the metal for confirmation that the piece is sterling won't help determine authenticity, many of these reproductions have the correct .925 silver content. Some reproductions are believed to be made in Thailand, and the vast majority are being sold in England (some possibly made in England); in fact, many of the reproductions originally sold in England were correctly priced as reproductions. It is generally resellers who misrepresent the age and value of these pieces, either mistakenly or deliberately. However, Sparacio warns that according to his estimates, 80 to 85 percent of reproductions being misrepresented as originals or deliberately eliminating age information are being sold online from England.
Match safes by major luxury brands like Gorham and Tiffany are also being reproduced. This isn't surprising when you realize that the authentic originals can sell in the high hundreds to over a thousand dollars. One example is a 19th-century Gorham golf-themed sterling match safe reproduced with the marks 925, Sterling, and GJ inside a diamond, whereas the original would bear the Gorham Mfg. Co. name, as do all of their items. Not only would the new marks be an immediate giveaway, the modern safe is also smaller; it measures 1.75 inches tall as opposed to its original counterpart, which is 2.5 inches tall. Unfortunately, the details of the male golfer and flourishes are relatively good on this particular safe. The original Gorham match safe is valued at approximately $800-$1,000, while the reproduction is sold for $12-$18, making it easy to see why unscrupulous sellers would try to pass off a reproduction as an original.
On the other hand, a reproduced sterling Gorham female tennis player match safe with the same contemporary GJ mark has extremely poor details. Among other things, the face is so poorly done as to be cartoonish. Similarly, a reproduced safe depicting a female golfer also suffers in the detail work and shows a face with bulging eyes. On all of these GJ safes, the strike plate has no wear and is very defined.
Forgeries of Wallace, Unger and Tiffany match safes are also common, some of which are well crafted. Sparacio recommends comparing the marks of any such safe you are considering buying with the marks of a known authentic piece. A Tiffany mark, for example, would also have a pattern and order number on their safe, whereas the forgeries typically eliminate these two numbers. Also, the majority of marks on old sterling safes were hand-stamped with punches unless there were a lot of them or large-sized marks, in which case they may have been applied by machine press. In fact, silverplate safe marks were mostly applied by machine press in order to imprint into the strong metal underneath the plating. These techniques of hand stamping and machine pressing are time-consuming and require specialized equipment, so forged safe marks are generally molded into the piece.
The placement of the mark is another clue to authenticity. Most of the time, you'll find marks on vintage and antique match safes obscured from view when the safe is closed - open the lid and look on the bezel protruding from the body of the safe. While a few reproductions might follow this marking method, most will appear elsewhere on the safe.
The way the safe is manufactured can also tell you a lot. Newer pieces may be heavier and thicker than originals because the modern safes are usually cast rather than die-stamped. You may also see more obvious seams or grinding marks on a repro where an attempt was made to lessen the appearance of the seams. Alternatively, the seams on originals were hand-finished and not obvious. Additionally, look for a thicker spring bar - vintage spring bars are generally about 1/16 inch thick or under.
Sparacio has recently seen an influx of authentic old sterling match safes of lower value that have had plaques applied to them in contemporary times in order to increase their prices. Some of these are modern plaques made in China, and others are old pieces taken from jewelry. Since the English hallmarks on the safes themselves are correct, buyers just assume the entire piece is authentic, but don't be fooled. Check to see if the theme of the plaque makes sense with any design work on the safe, and make sure the plaque isn't too big, too small, or too thick for the spot it's in. Sparacio cited an example of a match safe with a compass that was so thick, it protruded into the safe, taking up space that would have been used for matches. Again, this wouldn't make sense, since old match safes were utilitarian and wouldn't lose more than a tiny amount of space to an insert.
Special thanks to George Sparacio for information and images courtesy International Match Safe Association.
At A Glance:
Signs of a reproduction sterling safe
1. Modern hallmark
2. 925 mark alone - use caution
3. Strike plate with no wear - use caution
4. Thicker, heavier metal
5. Wrong materials
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); American Silver Match Safes by Robert A. Jones.