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Develop Your Sixth Sense for Fakes

By Perry M. Frohne 

Will Rodgers truly was a keen observer of his fellow man. His bit of wisdom quoted here applies to the military images marketplace. Over the years I have met all three types. But, sadly, most collectors and dealers fall into the last category. This is where those with evil intentions thrive.

I have peed on that fence many, many times, before learning my lesson. The main reason I bought fake images was avarice, pure and simple. The lure of a fantastic image for sale at a low price clouded my normally analytical (and cynical) mind. I believed the seller had made a mistake to my advantage!

These bargain purchases arrived in the mail, and I anxiously opened each package. When the image inside was authentic, I congratulated myself for good judgment. When it was a fake, my disappointment was palpable. Most of the time I could get my money back, but sometimes I didn’t. That feeling of avarice still comes over me and I have to fight it— especially on eBay.

What motivated me to write this column? I would love to tell you it’s an uncontrollable urge to be helpful. In truth, the real reason is money. I sell a lot of military images, and the influx of fake photography hurts my bottom line. It likewise destroys trust in the image market itself.                   

Through the years, my customers would get ripped off, and many of them actually quit collecting images due to their fear of being taken.

This needs to stop.

What qualifies me to assist you in this learning process? Well, I have learned many valuable lessons in 30-plus years of traveling the world, setting up at hundreds of trade shows, and looking over thousands and thousands of early photographs of all types. I have spent years reading about early photography, going to museums and appraising photographic (and general Civil War) collections for institutions and collectors.

In 1998 I began to fight against fake images on my website Sadly, my “Fakes and Frauds” section has only grown larger over time. Judging by the emails I have received over the years, the information on my site has kept good people from losing their hard earned money to image fraud. This gratifies me. These experiences, and my own buying mistakes, have equipped me to fight those who would take advantage of our inherent trust in the honesty of our fellow humans.

This inaugural column contains general information and a short history of why images are being faked. Future columns will highlight specific ways to help you identify counterfeits, and to build your fake image knowledge base.

Let’s start with a brief history of the why and how fakes came to be.

The Why

There had long been fake belt buckles, falsely identified swords, and other misrepresented collectibles to intentionally deceive buyers, especially at gun shows. Photos initially avoided this fate because they were relatively cheap. But a dramatic increase in demand for Civil War collectables occurred in the later part of the last century, largely due to the 1990 Ken Burns miniseries The Civil War, and movies, notably Glory (1989) and Gettysburg (1993). Soon, collectables and images commanded much higher prices than ever before.

As a result, photos that you could once buy for a few dollars now commanded prices in the hundreds (and even thousands) of dollars. Unscrupulous collectors and dealers took advantage of the uptick in prices. This created an environment for creating fraudulent images.

The How

In the mid-1990’s, the Internet went mainstream. Online auction sites not only became a source for collectors to purchase fantastic material, but also, with little or no seller accountability, to get ripped off. Fake cartes de visite became easy to manufacture, and, because of slower web access and low-definition digital images, easy to pass off as originals at high prices. When a buyer complained, the fakers stopped selling under one name and started with another. The verifications and security that keep you safe while surfing today’s web were absent.

Comparing examples from the 1990’s to modern fakes, I am astounded by the creativity of those doing it today. Making fakes has evolved with better tools to produce them. Better quality fakes are also driven, in part, by technology, as high definition and faster Internet speeds have allowed users to see online photography in a clearer light.

Combat fake images with knowledge

There is no easy way of detecting fakes without experience, and, even then, it can be a tough call. You can’t buy experience. You can only acquire it with time.

One key to success involves building your knowledge of Civil War photography before you start spending your hard-earned money. Study as many real images as you can. Looking, touching and analyzing early images at antique shops, old bookstores and trade shows can increase your knowledge of photography of all periods and provides helpful context.

You can also learn how authentic photography was made. Basic knowledge of photographic processes will help you detect when an image is not as represented. One other key: Learn about hairstyles, clothing and uniforms, weapons, equipment, backdrops and other elements of a portrait. Honest buyers and sellers who do not make the effort to learn these details will likely make mistakes. One of the most common complaints I hear involves images for sale described as Civil War period, but in fact date to the Indian Wars or later.

Finally, buy from reputable dealers with money back guarantees. Make sure they have been in business long enough to have established a track record. Talk to your fellow collectors and share information to build a list of trustworthy dealers.

Recommended books

These three books can help build or increase your knowledge base.

Collector’s Guide to Early Photographs, 2nd Edition by O. Henry Mace presents the best knowledge guide about 19th century images. The book is basic, though comprehensive. It explains the photographic processes and the fundamental history of photography, and provides general explanations of the subjects and condition of individual items that affect their market value.

Two very detailed and well-illustrated books offer valuable information for beginning and advanced collectors. Both were written by Gary W. Clark: 19th Century Card Photos KwikGuide: A Step-by-Step Guide to Identifying and Dating Cartes de Visite and Cabinet Cards and Cased Images & Tintypes KwikGuide: A Guide to Identifying and Dating Daguerreotypes, Ambrotypes, and Tintypes.

You can find all these books from a variety of sources at inexpensive prices.

Developing a sixth sense

I hope this column can help you develop a sixth sense—that inexplicable gut feeling that makes us hesitate, pause and consider. Anyone who has viewed an image at a show or online and felt that something was off or simply wrong, may have a difficult time putting a finger on exactly why. The image in question may have a strange color, the wrong mount for the period or some other inconsistency. This pause is what I call my “Fake Radar.” Learn to trust that feeling and you will be better prepared to purchase with confidence. You will make errors—we all have—but that goes with collecting anything of value. I believe that this sixth sense is the most important tool in your collecting toolbox.

That’s enough for now. We’ll start this journey together, and I will do my best to help you identify and avoid any fakes that come your way. Please let me know if you want me to address specific questions. And please share images and stories from when you bought a fake. My email is

Together we can learn not to pee on that fence!

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