Real Versus Fake: How to Tell the Difference in Antique Signs

Antique signs are very collectable partly due to the fact that they were used. They were meant to be hung outside and displayed. The weather and vandals would damage them rocks would be thrown at them and when a store went out of business they would be repurposed or destroyed. The signs during WWI and WWII are especially rare because they were melted down to make weapons and ammunition. With all these factors antique signs command hefty price tag making them a prime target for fakes. But how do you know if you are buying a real antique sign or a real good fake?

One good indication that a sign is a fake is if there are many similar signs with the same seller or there are many sellers with the same sign. This is an obvious indication that the sign is mass produced fake. If the sign is to perfect this is another good indication that the sign is a fake remember they were meant to be used. Old signs commonly have rust, pits or are generally imperfect. If there is only rust around the edges or the fading is consistent it is most likely a fake. The sun fades different colors at different rates red will fade before black and graphic will fade before the thicker background.

These signs were handmade and if the lettering or graphics look perfect and perfectly consistent then it was done by a computer. Hand lettered signs show brush strokes and even early silk screened signs show variations in the letter shapes and size. There are few letters to look out for: S, C, and O are the hardest to execute for a hand painter and therefore they will always look different even on the same sign.

If the sign has an address on it and it uses a two letter state abbreviation then you know that it is a fake. In fact the two letter state abbreviation wasn’t developed until the mid twentieth century. The same with a phone number when they were invented they were short only a few digits combining both letters and numbers.

Antique signs were also made in standard sizes to avoid waste. Plywood and metal were cut down in even sizes from 4 feet by 8 feet sheets. If you measure the sign and it is an odd length then it is most likely a reproduction. Checking the material is correct for the time period is another good way to tell the difference between a real and a fake. If the sign seller tells you the sign was made in the 1860 and it is a porcelain sign then you know something is wrong since the technology to make such signs wasn’t invented till the early 1900’s.

The most important thing when trying to distinguish between real and fake is to ask yourself if it makes sense. Why would the sign only rust on the edges? Why does it look so evenly faded? Is it correct for the time period? The last tell tale sign and the most obvious is to look and see if there is a sticker that says reproduction or made in China. Be smart and check twice.