Match Safe ReproductionsBy George Sparacio
Match Safe Reproductions
More new match safes are appearing in the American market. Some are copied directly from old safes while others only imitate the look or style of the old. For the purposes of this article, the term "match safe" includes English vesta boxes.
Recent Sterling Imports
At the wholesale and jobber level, the imported safes are honestly sold as new. The author has purchased several safes directly from wholesalers with "Made in Thailand" packaging and paper labels undisturbed. The problems begin when the packaging and labels are discarded and the safes are sold as old in the antiques market.
The only mark on the new safes is the single word "sterling". They do not have any of the other markings such as company name, trademark, patent date, city name, etc., typically found on genuinely old match safes. New sterling safes include: a mermaid combing her hair, dancing nude with veil, figural boot, fish in ocean wave, owl and moon, head of dog in circle, two embracing winged nymphs, two cherubs with serpent, lion head and scroll work, and others.
These same new sterling safes are also sold in England. But thanks to the strict hallmarking laws, the new safes entering England are permanently marked with the country of origin and year of manufacture. The date mark makes it easy for English collectors and dealers to identify the safes as reproductions. Collectors and dealers in the US and other countries aren't so fortunate.
If you are offered a safe marked with only the word "sterling," inspect it carefully. Most, but certainly not all, original American sterling safes are marked with more than just the word "sterling." Usually they carry a company name, patent date or some other marks in addition to the word sterling.
Reproductions from the 1970s
Although the Thailand copies are very recent, other reproduction safes have been around for years. The largest number was made in England during the 1970s. These are now, mistakenly or dishonestly, sold as old.
Most of the 1970s English pieces are figural sterling but they also include safes of common metals. Fortunately, the new English sterling pieces are stamped with English hallmarks. Many of the sterling reproductions are identified by a "DAB" maker's mark and 1970s date marks. Many collectors who are otherwise very knowledgeable about safes, don't take the trouble to decipher the date marks and buy one of these modern copies. Date marks are found in all silver books and can be written down on a small piece of paper.
Some of the known figural sterling safes reproduced with the DAB mark include: Toby dog, elephant head, lady's leg, Punch, rooster, shoe, skull, moon face and devil's head. A note of caution. If a hallmark appears to be "rubbed" or shows unusually high amounts of wear, be suspicious; it may be a deliberate attempt to distort the true date mark.
A Jack Daniels Whiskey advertising match safe (Fig. 13) is another 1970s reproduction often sold as old. It was made in Italy. If you look carefully, you can find it is marked "Italy" inside the top edge. Technically, this piece is not a reproduction; it is a "fantasy" item. A fantasy item means there is no known old original, it is a modern piece designed to appear old. This safe was sold through the Lynchburg Hardware and General Store, a retail and catalog outlet for Jack Daniels promotional merchandise.
Separating Old from New
The best way to tell old from new is to learn how old pieces were made. As an example, we'll look at two figural safes shown in Fig. 5. The features illustrated with these figurals also apply to non-figural safes and they are also true of both American and English made safes. Some features, but not all, will also apply to safes made of sterling.
First, the vast majority of old metal safes, both figural and non-figural, are made of nickel plated brass. Your first test of a safe should determine the metal. Most of the new safes are made of white metal. If you see a white or grayish color under worn plating or beneath scratches, be careful. You should see yellow brass in vintage originals. The new pig in Fig 5, for example, is not brass. Where the plating is worn, you can clearly see the white/gray color of pot metal. Even if someone fakes wear marks on a new safe, the white/gray color is your clue to a possible reproduction.
Another clue to a possible reproduction is a mold seam or grinding mark. Old safes, including figurals, were usually made of die stamped pieces. These pieces were carefully joined together and hand finished. Almost all new safes are cast, not stamped. Grinding marks are usually found along the new mold seams so if you see one, look for the other. A typical mold seam in the new safe is shown in Fig 7. The same leg on the old safe, Fig. 8, was made without an obvious seam.
The casting process also tends to blur details. For example, striker grooves in most new cast safes, whether white metal or sterling, are generally blurred and shallow (Fig. 11). Grooves of strikers in typical old safes, even those with normal wear, are much sharper (Fig 12).
Another example of how casting blurs detail is found in the numbers on the new pig's bag. The numbers on the original pig safe were die stamped and are sharply pressed below the surface in the old money bag (Fig. 10). The numbers on the new pig safe are cast above the surface and not as sharp (Fig. 9).
Be sure to examine the entire safe for other clues of hand crafting. The tension spring that closes the lid in the old pig is held by a tiny screw; in the new pig, a rivet has been used (Fig. 6). On the old pig, the bottom legs were made separately and hand soldered to the body. Legs of the new pig, by contrast, were cast as one piece with the body to save time and avoid the hand soldering used to make the old.
In addition to outright reproductions, there are items that sellers call match safes that are not match safes. All match safes have a separate, distinct striker.