Reproductions and Fakes
General Caveats & Advice
by Les Hughes
© by author 2003
Let’s start by agreeing upon some definitions. The term reproduction (and its shortened form, repro) will be used here to describe an insigne that is a copy of one known to have been used by military personnel. The term fake will be used to describe an insigne that someone has created for the collecting market – an insigne referred to by some as a "fantasy insigne." Granted, there is not universal agreement upon these definitions, indeed, you will often find these terms used interchangeably, but for my purpose I shall adhere to these definitions. (Additionally, I will risk being labeled a pedant and use insigne as the singular form and insignia as the plural.)
Reproduction insignia have been made and sold for decades. There is nothing illegal or unethical about the practice when the items are accurately represented – indeed, many veterans organizations have commissioned the manufacture of reproduction insignia for sale to their members. But as years pass and the insignia change hands, reproductions may evolve into ‘original’ insignia. The following scenario illustrates how complex the problem can be. A veteran acquires a reproduction patch to replace his lost original; he includes it with his wartime mementos; years later, as part of his estate, it passes to a dealer or to a collector. Thereafter, the item will be identified as having come from a veteran, and it will follow that it must be authentic.
An advertisement, reproduced here, from the Spring 1947 issue of the quarterly magazine Boots, a magazine that was published for a few years following WWII, whose intended audience was veterans of the airborne, further serves to illustrate the complexity of the repro problem.
The cloth insignia of several WWII-era airborne units are known to have been created and made overseas: these include those of the 509, 551 and the 5th Army Airborne Training Center (aka The Airborne Training Center, Sicily). Other units are known to have had metal distinctive insignia (crests) during the war, but not patches: for example, the 505 and 550. And yet today there exist for these units US-made patches that are widely embraced as original and that sell for significant sums. The Boots ad suggests one source of these patches. Whether such patches can be considered original is debatable, but, clearly, they are collectible. And what of the other patches offered in the Boots ad, the ones of units that had wartime patches? Were those offered by Boots identical to those worn by the members of the units, or do they represent variations that now, 50+ years later, we accept as original? The vast majority of reproductions that one encounters date from rather more recent times than those of the Boots ad. But keep in mind that a reproduction dating from the ‘70s is now nearly 30 years old may exhibit a deceptive appearance of age.
The Boots ad illustrates the fact that many reproductions are not made to deceive. Even when this is the case, one can rest assured that some such reproductions, eventually, will be offered as original insignia. There are, on the other hand, individuals who procure reproductions with the intention of representing them, often implicitly, as original insignia. (I say "implicitly" because many purveyors of these items are skilled at encouraging the belief their wares are authentic without explicitly declaring that they are, a practice that provides deniability should the items be exposed as reproductions.) Increasingly in these cases, special care will have been taken – in the choice of materials, in artificially aging the item – to insure the success of the deception. Some of these individuals, not being content with producing copies of known insignia, will create insignia that appear plausible in terms of materials of construction and design, but which, in fact, never before existed. This is especially prevalent in the area of so-called theater-made insignia, which command high prices and which legitimately tend to exhibit variability of materials, design, and craftsmanship. (In some instances these creations take the form of copies of known insignia embellished with fake tabs, arcs, or titles.) Over the past decade, fakes and copies of theater-made patches of very high quality have appeared, to the point that the acquisition of theater-made patches is a risky venture even for the experienced collector.
One also finds today legitimate firms striving to manufacture reproductions of high fidelity for sale as such. For example, the following is taken from an advertisement that was sent to many collectors and dealers via email by just such a firm. The firm (whose name I have changed to XYZ) is located in Europe, and their command of English is less than perfect.
"We come across your business by surfing Internet and glad that you are dealing in WWI & WWII Militaria Items. XYZ is a company striving to offer all types of handmade embroidered insignia, badges, caps & visors, head gear's accessories and webbing of all kinds for both Allied and Axis soldiers of the First World War, Second World War, for re-enactors, theaters, collectors and history buffs in general. We offer two classes, one we call "Reproduction" which is a standard replica, but at same time we also offer "like Original" which means that it is hard to distinguish these with actual "Originals". The reason is simple, in later, we use exactly same old material (50- 80 years old which we buy time to time from different parts of World) - therefore these "like original" Reproductions don't glow under UV light test and prove that material's age… For those of you who have not done business with us, most of the products that we advertise actually are "prototypes" and we have to make reproductions once you pre-order, and it takes about 5- 7 weeks for delivery. We do all work in our own work-shop, and as most of work is done by hand thus much labor is involved particularly for Insignia and webbing."
Another outfit makes this offer:
"We have started a "Barter Trade" Program where you can earn a rebate of US$ 100.00 if you lend us your Originals, and in return get a perfect Repro. FREE of charge (provided it’s face value is below $100) + your own Originals."
The activities of these firms are perfectly legal (and ethical, their owners would argue). But as surely as day follows night, some of their wares and those of other firms like them will be represented by others as original insignia.
So, how does one protect one’s self when acquiring insignia? Experience, knowledge and common sense are key elements in making wise acquisitions. Unfortunately, experience and knowledge often come as the result of painful mistakes. To minimize the extent to which this is your avenue to wisdom, recognize and operate within the limits of your expertise, but at the same time work to expand those limits. A certain prescription for misfortune in this hobby is when the reach of one’s finances exceeds the grasp of one’s expertise.
A few specific suggestions:
Develop contacts with other collectors (not just one!) of proven expertise, and draw upon their experience. This is not as easy as it may sound: judging another’s expertise can be as difficult as judging insignia; invariably, there will be individuals whose perceived expertise diminishes as yours increases. (Keep this in mind: years spent collecting do not automatically translate into expertise. You will find individuals who have collected for five years who have greater expertise than some who have collected for 20 years, because the former have focused as much on learning as on collecting, while the latter simply collected.)
Do not misuse reference works. There are any number of reference books available which serve as guides to specific areas of militaria collecting: patches, badges, edged weapons, equipment, uniforms, guns, medals. Compiling a book that covers a broad range of items (for example, aviation badges of the world) is a daunting task, and my hat is off to those who make the effort. It is my experience, however, that even the best of these books contain errors: the best contain few errors; the worst many. Unfortunately, novices (and many who are not) lack the ability to assess the accuracy of these references. That fact, coupled with the public’s tendency to believe what it reads in books, has allowed many references to reach the undeserved status of a bible. Assess the accuracy of references by talking with collectors and dealers. Do not rely on a single reference and do not lose sight of the reality that no reference is infallible.
Use common sense. Individuals who deal in insignia come to know the value of the items they sell. When you see an item offered at a fraction of its value by someone who should know better, be wary. Be wary of dealers whose return privileges are non-existent or unreasonably restrictive. And when a dealer offers return privileges, make sure you know exactly what the privileges are. A friend who returned an item to a dealer found his refund to be credit against another purchase, not the money he had paid for the returned item. Eventually, he redeemed his credit for an item he would not otherwise have purchased and for a price that he felt was inflated.
Learn as much as you can about the cast of characters with whom you come in contact and with whom you deal in the course of collecting. How do you do this? By talking to people, by asking questions, and by listening to others. Be mindful of what you learn, but keep an open mind. You will find, quite naturally, friendships, feuds, and rivalries among collectors and dealers. These relationships can be the sources of highly subjective characterizations – positive or negative - of individuals and insignia.
When in doubt, walk away. Many mistakes are made because a collector found himself pressured to make a "combat decision." For example, you are at a militaria show and you find an item that catches your eye. It is an item that if authentic you would like to have in your collection, but you’ve never seen an authentic example. This one might be authentic, but you’re not sure, and the dealer is someone whom you don’t know. The pressure is on: not only do you feel that a decision must be made before you leave the show, you may fear that just deferring a decision until later in the show may allow someone else to swoop in and lay claim to the item. Most collectors at this point have ceased to be objective – they want the item to be authentic; they want to leave the show with something to crow about – and they are especially vulnerable. Don’t be afraid to walk away from an item if you have doubts about its authenticity: rarely will one never again have an opportunity to acquire an example of the item in question.
Here is a test you might apply when confronted with the opportunity to acquire an item. Ask yourself, were this item mine and had I to sell it for what I am being asked to pay, how difficult would that be? Would I encounter widespread skepticism of its authenticity? Would I be told I was asking too much? Would I be able to tell people, honestly, that I did not doubt that the item was authentic? If such an analysis suggests that you would have a difficult time finding a buyer, then examine carefully the reasons why you are considering buying the item. This is more than just an idle test, because the day will come when you or your heirs will, in all probability, sell what you have accumulated. It may well be that the interest one has in an item will override all these considerations. There is nothing wrong with that being the case: only a fool would collect insignia for no other reason than as an investment. But at the same time, only a foolish collector would fail to consider the investment he is making.
Are there objective tests that allow one to determine whether an insigne is authentic? There are two tests that most patch collectors would suggest fall into this category: the ‘burn’ test and the use of a ‘black’ light.
The burn test is used to distinguish 'cotton' (see footnote) from synthetic fibers (typically polyester). It is based on the observation that 'cotton' thread burns while synthetics melt and on the belief that the use of synthetics in patch construction can be accurately dated. The challenge in applying the burn test is to not damage the insigne one is testing. Typically, one carefully teases loose a bobbin thread from the back of the patch. If possible, carefully cut the thread and remove from the patch. While holding the thread with tweezers, bring a flame slowly to the thread and observe its effect: 'cotton' will burst into flame while a synthetic fiber will melt into a ball and appear to retreat before the flame. If one cannot cut the thread from the patch, one can often, with care, tease it far enough above the surface of the patch to perform the test.
The use of an ultra-violet (‘black’) light to examine patches for polyester fibers is embraced with religious conviction by some collectors. The basis for using a black light is the observation that polyester fluoresces while 'cotton' does not.* Thus, patches with polyester fibers will shine when illuminated by a black light. Many collectors swear by the use of a black light and use one to screen their patches. One of the flaws of this test, however, is that brightening agents, long used in detergents, can impart to 'cotton' an appearance under UV light much like that of polyester. Anyone contemplating using a black light to assess patches should first become acquainted with the safety issues surrounding its use. Then one should experiment with its use on a variety of patches of known makeup and period of manufacture, and in doing so become familiar with its capabilities and limitations. Personally, I have never found the use of one to be helpful.
The intent of both the burn test and the use of a black light is to roughly date patches by detecting the presence of synthetic fibers. Unfortunately, there seems to be no firm date when the use of synthetics in patch construction became widespread, though the general belief is that this did not occur before the mid-‘50s. Thus in practice both tests are most often used to detect later-day copies of WW2-era patches. However, as pointed out earlier, today the makers of many such copies are careful to avoid the use of synthetic materials.
There are pitfalls in collecting beyond reproduction and fake insignia. Here are two of which collectors should be aware.
The value of military artifacts, under the best of circumstances, is subjective. The question of whether items are more valuable as a part of a larger assemblage is one with which each collector must grapple individually. And chances are that you will at some time have to grapple with this question because one often encounters in this hobby evidence of the principle that the whole is more valuable than the sum of its parts. Among the manifestations of this principle are uniforms laden with insignia and groupings of items attributed to a veteran, each of these being valued by the seller at more than the combined value of the individual components. Often, these uniforms and groupings are what they seem to be. But in many instances the uniforms have been decorated with insignia after the fact and the groupings cobbled together from disparate sources simply to exploit this principle.
I saw offered recently on an Internet auction a grouping of items named to an OSS veteran that included his jacket, upon which were two nice patches. It so happened that I was one of two individuals vying to purchase these items from the veteran’s widow several years before. After examining the items, I chose not to purchase, as I already had everything the veteran’s widow was offering. When the grouping later appeared at auction, offered by a dealer, I was surprised to note that the veteran’s jacket, bare of insignia when in the widow’s possession, now bore the insignia that had been in her possession as separate items. Someone (and it was not the widow!) believed the jacket and insignia were worth more together than separate; judging from the realized price at auction, he may have been right. (This in spite of the fact that whoever put the insignia on the jacket did not do his homework and affixed one patch to the wrong sleeve!)
The best way to assess offerings of this sort is, first, assess the authenticity and appropriateness of all of the components – beware if even one component is a copy or a fake or if one does not logically belong. Second, calculate the value of the individual components to you. (If some of the components are ones you do not want or already have, value them at what you believe you can sell them for.) Third, calculate how much is the premium you are being asked to pay, and decide whether you wish to pay it.
Be wary of photocopies of documents. Whenever possible, one wants to be able to document the authenticity of items in one’s collection. Similarly, sellers feel that an item whose authenticity they can document merits a premium. Although photocopies of documents are a perfectly adequate substitute for the documents themselves in terms of the information they contain, they are worthless when used to document provenance.
When formulating advice to collectors, I am reminded of the Forest Service announcements that were popular in my youth, the ones in which Smokey the Bear leveled his finger at the viewer and advised, "Only you can prevent forest fires." Similarly, only you can protect yourself from being victimized in the course of collecting. And the way to protect yourself is by expanding your knowledge, by establishing a network of knowledgeable contacts, and by using common sense. Enjoy the time you spend collecting, but be ever mindful that it is truly a jungle out there.
*I placed the word cotton in quotes when discussing the burn test because of the widespread belief that cotton was the primary fiber used in the manufacture of WW2-era patches. As Dave Kaufman pointed out in an article in The Trading Post (April/June 2002), the quarterly publication of ASMIC, rayon, not cotton, was the fiber of choice for manufacturing cloth insignia in this country during WW2, and most patches of that era that collectors believe to be "all cotton" are in fact made from rayon fiber. Rayon is a synthetic fiber in that it does not occur naturally in nature. However, because it is derived from wood, a naturally occurring material that burns, rayon, too, burns. Thus, rayon and cotton respond identically to the burn test.