Collectors beware: Many Civil War relics are fakes, valuable only to con artists

  • Posted: Monday, July 25, 2011 12:01 a.m., Updated: Friday, March 23, 2012 10:38 p.m.
Faked antiques including slave tags, old keys and a silver teapot are among items that Charleston Museum curator of history Grahame Long has collected.

Most curators and experts in the field of War Between the States artifacts say the proliferation of counterfeit pieces says as much about the economy as the 150th anniversary of the conflict.

There's big money in Civil War collectibles.

"Anytime you have big prices, you are going to have fake stuff," said Allen Roberson, director of the S.C. Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum in Columbia.

Sometimes, Roberson said, people have just misidentified what they have. "Some people are well-meaning, some people are not so well-meaning."

Few of these pieces actually turn up in museums, which have staffs that are expert in artifact identification. Long said most of these items are brought in by people who have found or bought them; con artists usually know better than to try to put something over on professionals.

"We haven't been duped yet," Long said. "If there is any question at all, we won't accession it."

But they will keep pieces, such as the padlock, as reference equipment. The Charleston Museum has fake Confederate belt buckles and slave tags for reference.

Counterfeiting has been a big problem in the industry for years and is only getting more common, said Mike Kent from Mike Kent & Associates, which puts on most of the Civil War shows around the South (including the annual event at the Gaillard Auditorium).

"There is only so much of this stuff in people's attics," Kent said. "As times have gotten harder, the scam artists come out of the woodwork. Most knowledgeable collectors won't even touch a Confederate States belt buckle. There are so many fake ones out there."

It is a hard lesson to learn. Depending on the buckle, some of those can sell for between $3,000 and $6,000. They are easily counterfeited, which makes them a tempting money-maker.

Kent said that only slave tags are more likely to be faked. The tags, worn by slaves to identify their owner or give them the ability to move around a city without being detained, are easy to fake and worth a ton of money. Long said slave tags often sell at auction for between $5,000 and $20,000.

"They are the rarest of the rare," Kent said. "You only see real ones come through occasionally."

Dealers say that anytime a fledgling collector gets burned, it hurts the market -- most people can't afford to lose a few thousand dollars on a counterfeit treasure.

The best way to avoid getting duped, most say, is to buy only from reputable dealers, and only buy things you can examine beforehand. Ask for the provenance of anything you buy, Long said. And Kent said it's important to buy only from people who offer money-back guarantees if anything they sell is proven to be something other than what it's advertised to be.

And, as usual, common sense plays a role.

"If it's too good to be true," Kent said, "it probably is."

Reach Brian Hicks at 937-5561 or follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BriHicks_PandC.

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