Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
We know dealers who refuse to buy cast iron toys, banks, utensils, etc. because there as so many fakes in circulation. Some are good enough to fool even experienced collectors. Fake cast iron is one of the biggest problems facing the antiques community. We have had to pull many pieces of fake cast iron pieces off the shelves at the Center. Nonetheless, our abstinent dealer friends may be over-reacting. If you carefully study the object you can detect the vast majority of fakes that are poisoning the cast iron well.
A few weeks ago a fellow came by with a cast iron hitching post. He'd just bought it at an auction for a sizeable sum and wanted to consign it. We had to tell him it was a new piece and he'd been fleeced. We told him to take it back to the auctioneer and raise a RUCKUS! To arm him for the confrontation, we gave him a short course in counterfeit detection. Here's what we told him.
First, look carefully at the mold marks. It's called "cast iron" because it's cast in a mold - that is, it's poured into a mold and allowed to harden. The mold leaves all kinds of clues behind on the "casting."
In most early cast iron the mold was made from very fine wet sand. A wooden "pattern" the exact size of the desired cast iron object was pressed into the wet sand and the sand was packed very tightly around it in a wooden frame. The wooden pattern was then carefully removed and the various parts of the mold were locked together. The molten iron was poured into the mold through a small hole. Once the iron hardened, the mold was opened, the sand was washed off, and the casting was sent off for finishing. It was a slow, painstaking, highly skilled, labor intensive process, and if a piece came out of the mold with imperfections, it was tossed back into the cauldron.
This sand casting method is still used today; especially in underdeveloped countries - the kinds of places that counterfeiters tend to go to get their dirty work done cheaply. It may be cheap, but it ain't skilled. Sloppy, hasty, careless, shabby work is what comes out of these countries and therein lies the key to recognizing most counterfeit cast iron antiques.
On modern castings, the mold sections are often not properly aligned before they are locked together. This results in castings where the sides of the piece don't quite fit together.
In new production, the seams of the mold are not as tightly locked together. Therefore, molten iron can ooze between the pieces. This "ooze" is called flashing. When the piece cools, the flashing remains along the seams. On early pieces there is very little flashing. On modern pieces, there is a great deal of it. To eliminate this excess metal, it is run across a grinder that makes short work of the flashing but also effects the remaining surface of the piece. The grinder leaves marks that are exactly parallel and very coarse. Early pieces were hand-filed with a coarse file and then finished with a very fine file. The lines from hand filing are not all exactly parallel and are barely visible.
Second, look at how well the separate pieces of cast iron fit together. Our forbearers were careful workers who took pride in their work. When they were making the patterns for a piece, they kept at it until they had a set that fit properly together. They didn't leave wide and uneven gaps between the pieces. As a result, the seams between pieces on most early cast iron toys are so tight they almost disappear. On the new fakes, there are gaps so large you can slip a piece of cardboard through them.
Third, look for coarse granular surfaces. In early cast iron, the molds were formed from very fine sand. That texture can still be seen or felt on the pieces but it is very fine and uniform. On newer mass produced pieces you will find areas of very coarse surface, sometimes with substantial grainy pieces stuck to the surface. Those rough areas result from dirt and gravel that stick to the pattern when the workers take it out of the sand and throw it onto the dirty floor, etc. If there is a chunk of gravel stuck to the mold when it is set into the sand, it will leave its shape in the sand, which will be re-created on the casting. They may also result from poor quality molds, use of coarser sand, and use of poor quality molten cast iron with imperfections in the slurry.
Fourth, study the paint. Paint is one of the most important witnesses. It's difficult (but not impossible) to fake the look of old paint. On old pieces the paint is thicker, the color is brighter, the surface is shiny and very hard. When it gets hit it chips rather than scratching. On most (but not all) new pieces the paint is thin and applied with an spray gun. The "hitching post" had a thin spray painted coat of flat black paint. If it's spray paint it's new paint. If it's flat black, it's new paint. (And, even if it really is an old piece, if it's got new paint it's greatly diminished in value. Never paint an old piece of cast iron, no matter how much damage the original paint has.)
Fifth, look at the bolts holding the piece together. On an old piece the bolts will be so flush to the surface that you almost don't see them. On a new piece, they will often stick out from the surface. Often their heads will not be parallel to the surface because they had to be forced into place to hold together uneven parts. If you find Phillips head screws - those with a cross pattern on the head - look no further. They were only introduced about 1940 so they don't belong in an old piece of cast iron. We had a set of freshly painted cast iron lawn furniture at the center. It was held together entirely by phillips head screws. When we pointed that out to the dealer, he responded that maybe someone had simply replaced all the bolts when it was repainted. That's really quite a reach. You might get away with one or two replaced phillips heads if the rest of the pieces seems reliable but never all the bolts.
Sixth, once you've looked at the bolts, take them out and look at the insides of the piece. If it's been spray painted you'll find evidence of the paint along the inner edges. Once inside, look for deep even uniform rust on all the parts. You should not see any shiny metal. The humidity in the air over the years is enough to leave all surfaces with a coat of rust. Look for more evidence of machine grinding. Counterfeiters are basically a lazy lot and don't bother to conceal their work where they don't think you'll see it. In the "hitching post" we found fresh shiny iron where iron was ground away to make the sides fit.
And seventh, if you've got a piece with many parts, look at the material that every piece is made of. We had an elaborate cast iron fire engine in the store that looked pretty good at first glance. Some fellow brought it up to the counter and wanted to pay $250 for it. We noticed that it had a bell that had been stamped out of sheet steel. The bell didn't look old. Close examination exposed the entire piece as a fake.
So that's a quick course on fake cast iron.
"Now," we said to the fellow with the fake hitching post, "you're ready to give the auctioneer a fight!"
"Well..." he said, "The auctioneer didn't actually say it was old..."
"But he sold it an antiques auction!!!" we wailed. It was all to no avail. He wasn't up to the fight.
"No..." he said. "It's all right. I'll just reconsign it."
"Oh great!" we groaned. "That'll really teach the auctioneer a lesson. He probably bought it at Castle and ran it through his own auction. Now he can resell it and collect a sales commission too." Oh well, you can't win 'em all.
We fully expect to see this "hitching post" again in a few months. If you happen to meet this fake at your friendly local auction house, you'll now be well prepared to give it the back of your hand. Maybe it's next victim will be more willing to confront the Beast. (and that's the only way we'll ever stop this plague.)
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