You’ve read the books and studied the pictures. You belong to collector groups and attend conventions and shows. You are a seasoned veteran of online shopping. A long-time collector of mid-century American pottery, you are long past being fooled by the wares of any backyard Tennessee knock-off artist.
One day, quite unexpectedly, if finally happens. You experience the Holy Grail of collecting. You come upon an example of your favorite pottery; a cookie jar, pitcher, or shaker set that is obviously genuine, but yet, is very unusual or even unique in color or decoration. Here is a must have item for the serious collector…. with a price tag to match.
You pay the price for your passion and whisk your great find home for a center stage spot on your best shelf, thrilled that all your research and hard work scouring auctions and flea markets has finally paid off. You have ascended to a new level of collecting beyond the “everyday” versions and into the world of the “one of kind” items and “lunchroom specials!”
Many serious, knowledgeable, collectors live secure in the knowledge that they can spot a “fake” a mile away, and they probably can. However, unbeknownst to many of them, there lurks a special group of high-end counterfeiters who prey on their group nearly exclusively.
These counterfeiters don’t even try to fool the experienced collector with a “knock-off” or blatant recreation of the pottery genre they collect. Instead the fraudsters buy plain, unornamented versions of the vintage pottery, and then use gold, china paint, and/or decals to “embellish” the pieces, effectively turning ordinary pieces into far pricier “one offs.”
In this manner, a one hundred dollar cookie jar with these modern, unauthorized embellishments can be “bumped up” in value to the one thousand dollar level. Although the cookie jar is certainly “genuine”, it is not what it is being represented to be, and often, even pottery and ceramics experts have a very hard time detecting original decorations from those applied recently.
As disconcerting as this may sound, the reality is it is more common than you may think. A scan of eBay reveals a group of sellers who routinely seem to have up for auction more than a reasonable amount of pieces with “non-production” colors, one-of-a-kind decals, or unique gold accents. These sellers seem to never run out of pieces that most collectors might only see once in a lifetime.
These “lucky” sellers often boldly “guarantee” the item to be vintage, original pottery. The sad thing is, in the strictest interpretation, their guarantee is valid. The item they have for sale almost certainly IS vintage, and although the sellers usually make much of the “special” nature of the piece in the advertisement, they don’t mention the unusual motif in the “guarantee.” The pottery is guaranteed to be vintage; the gold trim you are paying hundreds of extra dollars for may be another matter entirely.
Unlike the education and research that can protect a collector from outright “fakes”, dealing with the problem of altered originals requires a different strategy. There is no reference material that can provide much help, since the tactics the fraudsters employ are sophisticated and the results are often impossible to “prove” by any expert.
Here’s some advice to minimize the risk of being taken.
First, we suggest that you never pay more than the going resale value for a piece unless you can examine it in person. Pictures are simply inadequate in these cases, and unfortunately, Internet sellers will lie more easily than those you meet face to face due to the protected, anonymous nature of the venue. Although the temptation may be great, unless you are willing to gamble your money and emotional investment, and lose, you should not put your money in a “special” piece that you’ve only seen on your monitor. Clues that might have shown themselves in a direct examination are just too easy to hide in a digital image.
If you feel you must buy a “specialty” piece from an unproven broker, try to get a “chain of custody” for the item. Very few pieces that are truly rare just “appear” out of nowhere. “I found it at an estate sale.” “My friend’s cousin (No, I don’t know her name, sorry.) had it in her attic.” This type of “distancing” statement should throw huge red flags. At the very least, you should strive to make contact with one previous owner to verify the piece and their history with it. That is a reasonable request to make from a seller who is expecting you to spend thousands of dollars on an item, barring a digital picture, sight unseen.
We recommend you try to get a consensus of authenticity on a questionable piece from a group of experts you trust. Oftentimes, a group will notice inconsistencies or issues that an individual will miss. In a personal example, a seller on eBay auctioned earlier this year a “solid gold” Shawnee Puss-in-Boots cookie jar for over $3200.00. When we saw a picture of the jar, we felt that the “look and feel” of the finish of the jar was nearly identical to a modern, opaque, gold glaze we had just used on a custom cookie jar order. In our online blog photo gallery:
You can see the pictorial results of the two jars compared side by side.
While it can never be “proven” that this particular jar was tampered with, most of the collectors who have seen the comparison photos conclude they wouldn’t have been comfortable risking over three thousand dollars on the jar.
Common sense and healthy skepticism are your best weapons to combat this type of fakery. We believe it is far better to pass up an expensive “might be” in favor of a splendid example of a “sure thing”. That one-of-a-kind item you spend thousands on will be valueless if the majority of the body of collectors ultimately rejects its authenticity, so, “When in doubt, don’t.” is still relevant, sage advice.