In the world of antique badges there is no 100% sure way to authenticate all of the time and the best method of checking an item is to know its provenance. Provenance is essentially the item’s history, who owned it when and where, and how did it come to be sold here and now. If the seller has a family history with pictures, letters or other documentation, it can go a long way to ensuring you’re dealing with authentic badges. In many jurisdictions a police department has a designated historian who might have access to staff roles and lists from the department’s history and may be able to tell you what styles and markings were used on badges at a given time, but even this method isn’t perfect and sometimes there aren’t any records or the “historian” isn’t very helpful because they already have a full time job and helping us collectors isn’t their idea of fun.
If there’s not a solid provenance, then your next best chance to authenticate is to check the hallmark, or maker’s mark, which is usually located on the back of a badge. Historically, at any given time there were usually only two or three major badge manufacturers who produced a limited number of styles so most badges from small towns would be one of the standard patterns, produced with unique town name and badge number. However, even hallmarks aren’t perfect because counterfeiters will try to fake these marks and in some cases even have the original tools used by the manufacturer, so that a real and fake mark are indistinguishable.
Your final and ultimate line of defense against fakes is your own knowledge and common sense. If a badge is supposed to be 75 years old and it still looks brand new, there’s a decent chance it’s not what it claims to be. There are always exceptions like a presentation badge that would not have been worn every day and may still be in near-mint condition after decades (coincidentally, these presentation badges tend to have the officer’s name on them and be some of the most treasured by collectors). Another common tell is badges that have been cast from old badges and will have a grainy or bumpy texture to the metal, or that it has been faux aged with acid baths or chemical rusting agents which will also eat away at a metal finish. Finally, for badges claiming to be made of gold or silver (this is especially common when badges are marked sterling or silver) look for hints of rust where silver plating has come off, this is a common trick and it’s easy to lose a lot of money on a fake sterling silver badge, that is really just plated.
While most fakes being sold are simply the product of honest people who think they have a “real deal” badge that isn’t one, there ARE people out there actively trying to trick you into parting with your hard earned money. There are several main categories of fakes to be aware of:
- Counterfeits – Badges that have been made by someone to intentionally deceive.
- Reproductions – Badges made and sold as reproductions, but that are sometimes resold as authentic either in confusion or deliberate omission.
- Parts Badges – Badges made with original parts or equipment that can be purchased after a badge making company goes out of business, or from scavenged scrap badges. Depending on the skill of the counterfeiter these can be very difficult to distinguish from authentic badges.
- Non-Department Issued Badges – These are badges that were not ordered by the police department shown on the badge, these can be authentic badges ordered by an officer from a vendor who didn’t have the contract to produce badges, a special order badge, a salesman sample type of badge, or an unauthorized badge.
- Modified Badges – Badges that have been changed after they were made, usually this involves adding the name of departments or places that are desirable to collectors, have a hallmark added to look more authentic, or have had other attributes changed to make it look older or more valuable.
Most fakes are pretty easy to spot for the trained eye because poor craftsmanship, inaccuracies, fake aging, and other tricks counterfeiters will use stick out once you’ve seen legitimate and real antique badges. If you’re new to collecting antique badges the best thing you can do is attend shows and events where you can look at and hold real antique badges sold by reputable dealers so you know what the authentic antique badges look like. This will also help you put an accurate value with badges, because nine times out of ten, if you’re shopping online and the deal is too good to be true, then it definitely is.
On the other hand, sometimes even experts disagree about the authenticity of an item. If you see something you think is real and you’re confident about it then don’t be scared off by someone else’s doubts, they may not have the same knowledge or skill as you do. However, if someone has expressed doubts about a piece you should disclose this when you sell it, other people should have all the facts when deciding whether to purchase a piece from you or not.
Don’t be discouraged or scared off by counterfeiters, most of them are easy to spot and the really good ones can fool almost anyone! Just take your time and work with reputable dealers and people you know until you feel comfortable picking badges yourself.