Tips of the Trade
Historic Photographs: Real vs. Fake
Wes Cowan hopes that educating photo collectors will help put forgers out of business.
This Annie Oakley photo was copied.
This picture of General Custer looks like a convincing ambrotype—but it's actually made of plastic.
Copied photos usually display tiny dots or fine lines of color that can be seen up close with the naked eye.
Recently, an antique dealer, excited about his find, telephoned appraiser Wes Cowan and told him he had bought photographs of 19th-century Native Americans in a New Jersey antique shop. To get a better idea of just what the portraits were worth, he sent them to Wes, an expert on old photographs and the owner of Wesley Cowan's Historic Americana Auctions in Terrace Park, Ohio.
See what appraiser Wes Cowan has to say about how you can tell the difference
Wes took a careful look and gave the man his opinion, although it wasn't good news. Wes concluded that these "treasures" were no more than high-quality postcards bought at a museum shop. Somebody hoping to earn some less-than-honest money glued them to old cardboard, rubbed some coffee around the edges, and then scuffed them up—like furniture dealers sometimes do to make new furniture look antique.
In other words, the dealer had been hoodwinked. "He was terribly embarrassed," Wes reported. However, if he were more experienced, he wouldn't have been surprised, because makers of phony old photographs have found a ripe market over the last 30 years. "If you're a novice collector," Wes warns, "you can be fooled." Below, Wes provides a few tips to make sure you avoid the same embarrassment, and avoid wasting your money on less-than-authentic photographs.
The New Fakes
The business of fakes has boomed along with the interest in old photographs such as ambrotypes, tintypes, or cartes de visite (CDVs), popular in the mid- to late 19th century. Wes says that collectors' growing interest in old photographs over the last 30 years has steadily pushed up prices of such varieties of vintage prints as those of Annie Oakley, Abraham Lincoln, and Sitting Bull.
Where there is money to be made in the antiques business, fakes inevitably follow. Wes says that phony photos are now so common that they routinely appear at antique shows and flea markets, although they are rarely seen at photographic shows because no reputable dealer would attempt to sell them. Fakes are also fairly common at gun and militaria shows, where photos of personalities from the Wild West or American Indians are desirable. Buyers at these shows also are generally less educated about fakes, making them easier targets. Wes notes that one fake recently slipped past discerning eyes at a major New York auction house and had to be returned after the sale was made.
In the old days, photographic forgers photographed an original, developed the negative, printed it up, and then sepia-toned it to give it that old-time look. Today, technology has streamlined the making of a phony photograph. A favorite and inexpensive technique is to buy an original photograph and then copy it on a color copying machine. These new forgers have no need to photograph, print, or sepia-tone an image; the copying machine does it all for them. The copy is trimmed and fixed on an old cabinet card from the 1880s, which are routinely sold for 50 cents.
"It's much easier—and more common—to make fakes now," Wes says. What makes the forging business so seductive to the unscrupulous is the potentially large profit margin. "They pay three thousand dollars or so for an original Annie Oakley print," a relatively minor investment, Wes explains. "If they sell 10 copies at $300 each, they've earned their money back." Since these reproductions are sold by the dozen, a good forger can earn a pretty penny doing little besides finding ways to distribute the goods.
A photograph collector can protect himself or herself by following a rule that's repeated often on the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW: educate yourself well. "Learn as much as you can about what you're collecting," Wes says. "Unless you know what a photograph is supposed to look like, you can be fooled big time."
One of the things that every novice photo collector should know is that copied photographs look different from authentic ones. Real photographs exhibit a continuous range of tones. Copied photos consist of a series of very fine lines or tiny dots indicative of the photomechanical or the lithographic process. "You can see the lines with the naked eye or the dots under low-power magnification from a hand-held loop," Wes explains. He says his suspicions were raised recently when he saw photographs at a Civil War antique show that were shrink-wrapped in plastic. Wes suggests that you never buy a photograph unless you can inspect it plain and simple.
Sometimes forgers make images that look like old ambrotypes, often reproducing old developing and printing processes. One way to check these types of fakes is to look at the print to see whether it's made of plastic—such as the phony George Armstrong Custer pictured right—or made of glass, as were original ambrotypes.
Sometimes photographers will set up shop at Civil War re-enactments and take photographs of dressed-up soldiers only to sell them later as originals. But Wes explains that since many of these are taken with modern cameras, the images will look far sharper than those taken during the Civil War.
And, there's another telltale sign that one of these photos is modern: "The men almost always look too clean, and they're almost always overweight," Wes says of these modern pseudo-soldiers. "The re-enactors don't exist on a diet of wormy hard-tack that the Civil War soldiers ate."
And remember, if you're uncertain about whether a photo of yours is the "real McKoy," make sure to get a money-back guarantee. Wes echoes the warning that ANTIQUES ROADSHOW appraisers in almost every field repeat again and again: "If it seems too good to be true, it probably is."
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.