Please Don't Poison The Well

by Judith Katz-Schwartz

Dateline: 4/9/98

We were young, Artie and I, and we were new. The cast iron fire engine looked old to us. It had rust in some spots, and missing paint, so we were sort of sure it wasn't new. It just looked as if it had survived someone's childhood in remarkably good condition. Artie looked up at the dealer and asked, "Is this a reproduction?" The dealer, a man who looked to be about seventy, and who was selling at a small Pennsylvania flea market out of the back of his pickup truck, looked Artie right in the eye and said, "No, this is an old toy. This is no fake."

And that's how we came to own our first unmarked reproduction cast iron toy.

All over America (and the rest of the world too, I'll bet), dealers are looking into the eyes of their inexperienced customers and telling them the brand new objects they are holding are bona fide antiques. Most of these dealers are knowingly lying. Paper labels have been removed, incised marks filed off, porcelain marks painted over. Objects have been artificially "aged" by burial in the yard, wetting down, scraping along the driveway--you name it. And, although it is infuriating and depressing that these people apparently have no consciences, that's not the worst part. The worst part is that most dealers who engage in this fraudulent and, indeed, criminal practice, don't realize that they're cutting their own throats.

I'm not about to deliver a sermon, a talk about how, as human beings, we ought to treat each other well. No, my point here is that people who sell unmarked reproductions (and, inasmuch as virtually all collectors have occasion to sell their "mistakes", this practice is not exclusively a "dealer thing") are too short-sighted to realize that they're destroying their own market. If you have any doubt about the accuracy of what I'm describing, just look at the markets in cast iron toys, Native American squash blossom jewelry or lithographed tin advertising signs.

When cheaply made Asian imports of cast iron objects first appeared on the market, sales were brisk. Inexperienced buyers believed the lies of dealers who simply peeled off the paper labels required by U.S. Customs, and they bought. After a while, more experienced collectors, and honest dealers too, began to alert the public to what was happening. After that, nearly all cast iron toys and banks were viewed as suspect. The repros were not as finely made or well-finished, and the dimensions were off, because the old toys were used to make molds for the copies. Experienced folks could tell the difference, but the average customer really couldn't. The result? Everyone stopped buying cast iron toys and banks. They were all afraid of being taken. So, all the unscrupulous dealers got what they deserved--a garage full of reproduction toys and banks, little frying pans with Mammys on them and miniatures they couldn't sell.

Most people, myself included, felt justice had been done. What we all failed to grasp though, was that, along with all the con artists, honest dealers were hurt as well. What about the seller who invested thousands in beautiful old cast iron mechanical banks? Or the one who spent years acquiring a sizable l inventory of antique cast iron cars and trucks? They were also hurt, and they didn't deserve it. Honest, hardworking dealers saw the value of their merchandise drop like a rock off a cliff. And collectors who had lovingly assembled lifelong collections of antique toys over a lifetime watched the value of their collections disappear, as demand for their items in the market decreased.

Nowadays, anyone who wants to sell an authentic Navajo squash blossom necklace will either have to find a very serious and knowledgeable collector of Native American jewelry, or accept a fraction of its value in payment. And the market in tin advertising signs, Nippon porcelains, mechanical banks and Staffordshire pottery figurines are all severly damaged, because of the greed or shortsightedness of people who are in the market for the fast buck.

Before we know it, they will have killed off the antiques and collectibles market entirely. I urge you, if you are thinking of giving in to temptation by trying to sell the reproduction you mistakenly bought, and to do it without informing your buyer that it is not old, not to bite the hand that feeds you. Let's preserve our market and our integrity. Don't stop thinking about tomorrow.

Your comments, as always, are welcome. If you have something to say, write to me.
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1998, 1999 Judith Katz-Schwartz. All rights reserved.