QUESTION: I’m a big fan of the Civil War. I’ve read a lot about it and go to re-enactments regularly during the summer. Recently, I started a collection of Confederate items. My most recent purchase was a cartridge belt plate with the letters “CSA” on the front. It looks real enough, but I’m not so sure. Can you tell me how to tell the fake from the authentic items?
ANSWER: As in all collecting, the more educated you are as a collector, the better off you’ll be. You must become an educated buyer. Purchasing on sight just because an items looks good and the price is right isn’t enough.
There’s a sucker born every minute. And when it comes to identifying Confederate militaria, there’s probably one born ever couple of seconds. In fact, someone once said that if the Confederates had everything that’s now believed to have belonged to them, the would have won the war and had a surplus.
Confederate items can be worth 10 times those that belonged to Union soldiers. So the market for Confederate fakes is ripe. Be wary of dealers that won’t tell you anything about an object, then offer it to you for what amounts to a bargain basement price. If the price is too low, the item most likely is a fake. Even selling it for a low amount, the dealer will make out on the deal.
To make objects look as if they’ve literally been in battle, some have minie balls hammered into them. A tell-tale gray ring will show that the ball had not been fired into the object.
Demand that a dealer authenticate a Confederate object. Ask if you can get the item appraised by a professional appraiser before agreeing to purchase it. Whether you plan on buying a $1 minie ball or a $10,000 Henry repeating rifle, it always pays to ask. If the dealer refuses to let you get it appraised, just walk out of the shop or away from his or her booth at a show. If the dealer is selling legitimate Civil War memorabilia, he’ll let you bring it back for a refund.
If you purchase what you think to be an authentic Confederate object for a relatively substantial price and it turns out to be fake, then you have the right to prosecute the dealer for fraud. Doing so will probably prove difficult, since fraud is difficult to prove, but it doesn’t hurt to try.
Confederate coins are a good case in point. Unscrupulous dealers have hundreds cast, and sell them for modest prices. Coins are minted, not cast, so they’re fakes. But, then again, how do you prove that the maker wasn’t making honest reproductions to sell to re-enactors?
Sometimes labels on objects will reveal their authenticity. First, paper labels didn’t come into common usage until the turn of the 20th century. If an item has a paper label on it, it would pay to have the paper tested. You might just discover that the process used to make the paper didn’t exist before the 1930s.
As for belt plates, two types exist, excavated—dug out of the ground—and unexcavated. Fakers will use acids and brass-black to pour over the buckle and create a dark color to make a patina. Look for signs of liquid in tiny pits, or smell the buckle. It will have a harsh foul smell, like something rotting.
A faker often makes a reproduction of an unexcavated buckle by making it look damaged. You should look for evidence that parts have been filed off. The belt plate also should have the same color throughout and "no spots where the brass is shining through. Above all, be suspicious of any buckle marked "CSA" or "CS." And if it has a date like 1862 on it, it’s not authentic.
Within militaria, the Civil War is a problem because there are more items from it around. One way in general to tell if a product is fake is to judge its quality. Very few can duplicate the quality of merchandise that they had back then.