At several recent meetings of the NHBS the discussion of dubious or highly suspect brasses has been a common subject of late, and some collectors have even commented how these seem to have been on the rise. This latter comment however is not entirely accurate as it is known that many of these spurious brasses were made up to twenty years ago and are only surfacing now because, as older members have passed away or given up collecting, numerous examples have surfaced and are finding their way on to the market especially via the relatively recent, electronic aution facilities.
It is now common knowledge amongst collectors of twenty years or more of a certain collector who was canvassing for plain brasses and paying unusually high prices for these because, as he stated, "he had a friend who liked them." Some years ago, one collector told the author that:
"alarm bells first began to ring when I saw a brass, which I was absolutely certain had been one of mine, with the exception that this one, now being shown around by its its proud new owner, now had writing all over it."
Since then, a number have surfaced and awareness has been raised and some collectors (who even bought brasses from the perpetrators) now realising that some of the brasses in their collections are fakes, and have tried to recoup their losses by attempting to unload brasses through these electronic auction facilities on the internet, before the inevitable warnings are flashed to members via email or the membership grapevine. During these discussions the author has been asked by several members to give the subject a permanent profile here on our website in the hope that this will further raise awareness and act as a warning to collectors both old and new of something that has dogged the horse brass collecting community for a while now.
It may well be argued that any collecting subject has reached its status as a truly popular pastime when fakes or reproductions begin to appear. In other collecting fields this has been a common state of affairs for many years and where there is a known demand/shortfall for a certain popular type of antique or collectable, there are usually a few entrepreneurial types who will quickly identify and supply it. Indeed, it is often said that nature abhors a void and so, with human nature being what it is, some spurious brasses should have been an expected, inevitable outcome. Even though most collectors detest them, fakes do have, as strange as this first may seem, an object value entirely of their own. In her publication entitled, Interpreting Objects and Collections, the Editor, Susan Pearce informs us that,
Fakes are a way of subverting the established order of object value through the arts of deception, but from another point of view they are legitimate historical documents which tell as much (and sometimes more) about the time in which they were made. They capture two important aspects of objects: they relate directly to notions of object value, usually in a straightforward salesroom price sense, and they are deeply implicated in the often malicious personalities of the fakers and the weaknesses of collectors (p.92).
In the same publication, one of the contributing authors, Mark Jones writes,
Where there are fakes it is clear that there was a booming market in the things thus imitated: fakers are above all creatures of the market, and move quickly to take advantage of the high prices produced by a new fashion before the development of expertise makes their task more difficult or, worse still, their activities undermine the market altogether (p.94).
The subject of fake horse brasses is not exactly a new one either. In 1916 H.R. Carter wrote of this problem and how some modern output was especially age-treated on the face and artificially blackened on the reverse. These brasses however, are easily spotted and are only of passing interest to the beginner but it is the more skilled attempts that create the worst problems. Even in this area, and as early as 1912, the writer Charles Rowed warned collectors of the existence of such things (see NHBS Journal 57 p.19). This is a hurdle where even the most experienced collectors can sometimes fall, and this kind of fake-brass would, most likely, be a genuine example, with actual harness wear made unique by the later addition of other (even contemporary) parts perhaps, or indeed, an engraved name, a date, or a trade calling. These brasses were of course as eagerly sought after by collectors in the early years of the last century as they are today.
In the June 2000 issue of the society journal, (No. 48) Horse Brass, the subject of these forged pieces was first covered in the editorial and a short article, by the then editor, Ran Hawthorne, who wrote that, “This [practice] is not widespread but because of the type of brass and the prices being asked, collectors are being deceived and defrauded of large sums of money” (p.1) The brasses in question at this time were those pictured left, which as the article further stated, “Started life as a plain sun-disc swinger, and a plain “hide shaped brass” (P2.) -which, we will remember- were just the type of brasses that were being sought out by certain individuals at this time, the result of which, we will examine further.
It is now common knowledge amongst veteran NHBS members that, during the late 1980's-early-1990’s, a small ring of dishonest collectors sought to cash in on the high prices expected of rare types of brasses, by having certain examples engraved by a skilled artisan. These brasses, which were genuine 19th Century examples, were of the plain type, which offered plenty of scope for the engraver to have detail worked upon them. From testimony gathered in recent years, it is believed that an elderly artisan was engaged to do the work who was known to one of the perpetrators, and who has since passed away. There can be little doubt however, regarding his skill as an engraver, and he should be held in no way to blame as this was simply a job of work to him, for which he was probably paid handsomely as something of a supplement to his pension perhaps. However, as we will examine, his handiwork can, with care, be discerned with a little practice.
Above; Three faked types using genuine harness worn types, including one far right engraved in situ to retain its original leather face-piece to add authenticity. Note the characteristic freshness of each piece. Ask yourself why this should be so, especially as, if each piece were in fact genuine, why none have become worn through regular polishing. In almost all cases, the faked detail purports to be northern in origin, mainly Lancashire or Yorkshire, and the very occasional exception.
Above; three more faked types using genuine old brasses. Note the northern location again of the two outside brasses. The Huddersfield and Kings Heath brasses appeared for sale on the internet a couple of years ago but were withdrawn after several complaints. A genuine Kings Heath award brass is included below as a comparison, as is the genuine owner brass to the right of it. Note the wear on the brass, below right, which is commensurate with its age. The genuine Kings Heath brass however is the exception and has remained very fresh. Indeed, here we can see when comparing the two, just why these brasses have caused such consternation in recent years. However, the genuine Kings Heath below, is engraved on a thinly stamped brass of the time and has leather-work that is also contemporary with the date, whereas the above centre brass is a much older, cast brass.
The Kings Heath brass is also a notable exception to the general, Northerly aspect of these fakes. This is because the genuine Kings Heath brass was bought in an antique sale where the buyer claimed that others were present. This however was a complete falsehood as several buyers had carefully checked the lots offered for sale and had seen only one. The buyer simply had one or more copies made and retained the original for himself, until he himself, gave up collecting, sold his brasses, and therefore revealed the lie.
(Left and above two genuine engraved types, included here for comparison.)
So what are we to do in the face of such blatant dishonesty? Perhaps the first avenue of inquiry however, is to employ the common sense, which sometimes goes out of the window in the undisciplined excitement that collectors may feel when faced with the chance of acquiring such a "rare" example, especially when other collectors are present which of course, "ups" the pressure. The obvious questions then, that all collectors should ask themselves are:
1. Why do ALL of these brasses always seem so fresh?
2. Why do certain details/engravings look distinctly similar despite the many miles that seperate the locations on the brasses?
3. why do so many of them seem too good to be true?
The answers are simple; because they are relatively fresh; they were done by the same hand, and because they ARE too good to be true. Always remember, when faced with such examples the age old adage of, Caveat Emptor, or Buyer Beware, and if an example seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Better to treat all examples of engraved brasses as highly suspicious and then use your acumen to convince yourself otherwise.
Above; another two fakes, where the similarity of "hand" is difficult to ignore; especially in the numerals in the dates. The Huddersfield Gala Award Brass on the left however is a typical example of "cashing in" on two types of horse brass the Royalty, and the Award, only the fakers did not do their home work , because Edward was not Prince of Wales in 1907, he was King of course, and his son George (later George V) was actually Prince of Wales. Collectors often note how certain aspects of these faked brasses are almost too good to be true, and are just a little too well embellished with added swirls and stars and other details that genuine brasses often did not have.
Discussed recently at the 2010 AGM in Walsall was perhaps one of the saddest examples of this dubious practice, which can be seen in this wonderful old martingale pictured left, which now only exists as a photograph. This rare martingale had several examples of cast brasses mounted on it, of the type which required much hand-finishing. This is also the type of artefact that probably indicates a smaller output from a regional workshop, and was a valuable, and possibly even one-off example of the type of folk-art which flourished in the horse brass era.
At the time (at a past AGM in Walsall), its then owner experienced some trouble selling it and later decided to cut the brasses off to sell individually realising that he could make more money that way Recently, the central diamond pattern re-surfaced from a breaking collection but with the added legend seen above. At the 2010 AGM, interested members were offered a further chance to handle and observe the type of rare brass that has been altered and made even "rarer" to command a much higher price. Plainly evident here is exactly the same "hand" seen in most of the other brasses on this page, featuring the same type of specialised event; the same northern location, and of course, the same team of forgers. What is most disturbing however is that a valuable example of localised brass-work and harness ware has been lost for nothing better than short term monetary gain, and as a result this wonderful piece of historical evidence is now gone forever.
Of the examples included here, all have been used because experienced collectors were, at one time, taken in by them, and are used here with their permission, with the exception of the fake Kings Heath (1929) brass and the Huddersfield (1897) brass which are downloaded images taken from auction facilities on the internet whilst these were in the public domain, and therefore devoid of copyright.
The NHBS Stand on Fakes.
The problem of these fake brasses is one that is often discussed amongst members and at committee level and the general consensus of opinion which becomes painfully clear to committee members especially, is that, as a society, the NHBS cannot possibly police the market or act as some sort of market regulator. What we can do however is to raise awareness against the existence of such brasses and, if and when such items do appear, simply state that, “we cannot authenticate”, brasses such as those shown in this article. Collectors’ today therefore, need to be very wary of engraved brasses, perhaps more than any other type. As ever, experience is the key and in his publication, Horse Brasses, the author George Hartfield wrote,
Most collectors start as jackdaws, gathering everything they come across- later culling the frauds and the poorer specimens. It is probably better not to try to short-circuit this. To make mistakes, and then to live with them, is the finest way of getting to know your subject in any collecting field (p.62).
This is a factor that most serious collectors - including the author - would agree with, although it is far better to keep abreast of current matters in any collecting field, in order to avoid the nastier, more expensive mistakes such as those that we see here.
So how does the modern day collector achieve this? Perhaps the only method of combating spurious items in any collecting field however, has always been the knowledge and experience that some call connoisseurship. In order to fully understand their chosen subject, it always assists a collector once a detailed study of manufacturing processes is properly understood. This means that many avenues of investigation may be attempted before a detailed knowledge is achieved. This may include a study of the materials from which an item is constructed and how these mature over time, as well as an understanding of the fabrication processes. Most publications on the subject do contain something about manufacture, which is always welcome to the beginner, but there can be little doubt that the collector will learn so much more from the careful observations made from the handling of genuine examples. Collectors tend to know each other, talk amongst themselves and band together especially in the face of such blantant fakery. Many have now taken a stand against this practice and awareness has been raised and pretty soon there will be little to be gained in any attempt to sell these brasses at all.
This is where a good society comes in very useful and a collector of horse brasses of course has the benefit of the National Horse Brass Society where new members can converse with other collectors and reputable dealers and rely on their advice and experience. In recent years the NHBS has developed an excellent rapport with its members by providing a number of venues each year where members old and new can meet up and purchase or exchange brasses and keep abreast on what is happening on the market.
We sincerely hope however, that any horse brass collectors are not put off by these fake brasses, for after all, as the original article in 2000 stated; it is not a widespread practice, and several of the perpetrators have since passed on, which includes the engraver himself, So if the occasion rises where a collector is faced with such articles if there is ever any doubt;
1. Always ask for a receipt.
2. Always agree on a “money back” guarantee.
3. Dont believe the usual lie that, " another collector has shown an interest in it" If he or she truly had, it wouldnt still be there would it?
And, if neither is forthcoming, ask yourself why, and leave the article behind.