Tiffany Belt BucklesBy Mark Chervenka
Tiffany Belt Buckles
A well planned hoax
Brass belt buckles marked "Tiffany" first began appearing at antique shows, auctions and outdoor markets in the early to mid-1960s. Despite warnings from experts that such buckles were never seen before 1965 and did not appear in any reference books, buyers began paying up to $400 and more to own them.
The questions of age seemed to be settled in 1970 when a book exclusively on the belt buckles, Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates (TGEEBP) appeared. In it were specific company names with order dates, production quantities and other detailed information. Buckle sellers pointed out the book's 1950 copyright date as proof the buckles were documented years earlier. The question of age seemed to be resolved.
But that was only the beginning.
In 1973, J. Duncan Campbell, an expert in metal insignias who was an advisor to the Smithsonian, published New Belt Buckles of the Old West, a book exposing the Tiffany buckles as frauds. Not only did Campbell prove the buckles were recently made, he also showed how the TGEEBP book with "factory records" and a copyright date of 1950 was faked too. Campbell also learned that western museum owner Frank Fish, who is used as a reference throughout the book and alleged to have owned the original Tiffany buckle dies, was murdered and his museum looted.
Campbell's complete findings, to our knowledge, have never been fully reported in the antique trade publications. This article presents the facts on a carefully planned fraud that began in the mid-1960s.
One of the keys to establishing the fake buckles' age was how the wire belt loop was attached to the buckle (Figs. 5 & 6). A bracket with a curved arm is placed over the loop and brazed in place. Campbell pointed out that this method of construction was never used by any American buckle maker between 1865 and 1900 which is the time period sellers claimed the Tiffany buckles were made. Campbell said it was a peculiar construction and a strong indication the buckles were probably made overseas.
The buckles also failed another technical test. It is repeatedly stated in TGEEBP that the buckles were diestamped but all the buckles Campbell examined (as well as all the buckles ACRN obtained) were cast, not diestamped. Die-stamping is the same process by which coins are minted and is capable of intricate detail. Blanks of cold metal are struck between two heavy plates with a reverse of the desired image. Die-stamping requires great skill and is very expensive. Casting, on the other hand, is a comparatively cheap method of production. Simple hand carved models can be used in a sand mold. In low wage countries, sand casting (depending on quality) can be done for pennies per piece.
The simple way to tell castings from die-stamping is to look for grinding marks. Casting virtually always shows grinding marks where hot metal has leaked through the mold seams. Die-stamping cuts or shears cold metal into the finished piece leaving a smooth surface which requires no grinding.
A third unusual characteristic of these buckles is that there are marks on the back. Campbell pointed out that with the exception of a few isolated buckles used by the Confederate Army, no more than one percent of all American 19th century buckles have any markings on the reverse side.
There are at least 84 confirmed different types of faked buckles, but there could easily be more. There are no authentic buckles to show next to the fakes because no old buckles exist (for the exception, see Figs. 11-12).
The book used to "document" the fake buckles was titled Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates (TGEEBP) with Percy Seibert listed as author. In it were factory records and historical background on brass (or bronze) belt buckles made primarily by two 19th century manufacturers, Tiffany's of New York and E. Gaylord of Chicopee Falls, Massachusetts. These buckles, according to the book, were made in limited quantities and are now rare and valuable.
Tiffany, of course, is the well known family of jewelers, the most famous being Louis C. Tiffany. E. Gaylord refers to Emerson Gaylord who began his career as a harness worker in 1841. He owned his own workshop by 1856 and prospered filling military contracts during the Civil War. When the war ended, his firm made mail bags, cabinet locks and other hardware until the business closed. The names E. Gaylord or Gaylord Mfr were never used after 1889.
The TGEEBP books were first seen in 1971-72. Some sold for as much as $40 with the price leveling off at about $20. They were available in both hard and soft cover (Fig. 13). In 1972, one of the books was purchased by J. Duncan Campbell, a specialist in U. S. Army insignia and American belt plates. Campbell had over 30 years experience in his field and was widely published; he also served as technical consultant to the Smithsonian.
By Percy Seibert, TGEEBP, ©1950
By J. Duncan Campbell, Smithsonian Bulletin #235, ©1963
Campbell was in for a surprise. In his own words, "In the (TGEEBP) book's very first pages I was amazed to read sentences and paragraphs precisely as I had written them in the Smithsonian Bulletin #235 (Military Insignia) which appeared in 1963." How, Campbell wondered, could a book copyrighted in 1950 (Fig. 15) include exact passages of words Campbell had not written until 1962?
Campbell began his investigation by requesting the Copyright Office to search their records for: the title, TGEEBP; the author, Percy Seibert; the publisher, Joel & Aronoff; and the printer, Reeses Press (Fig. 1 & Fig. 15). The Copyright Office responded by mail saying that a search of records for the years 1946 through July 1, 1971 "...failed to disclose any separate registration for a work identified under these names. The book has no copyright."
Campbell then contacted Joel & Aronoff which was listed as publisher. Arlene Lombardo, representing the business, told Campbell that they were makers of embroidered emblems and "...we know nothing about belt plates and we never had anything to do with them."
Why then did the name of that business appear in a book on belt plates? Campbell discovered that Joel & Aronoff did in fact publish a book on military insignia but in 1945, not 1950. The copyright page of the 1945 book and TGEEBP are identical except for the date.
Campbell then turned his attention to tracking down the printer, listed as Reeses Press, Baltimore. This is the same printer listed in the 1945 insignia book but with one important change-- there was an additional "s". There was a Reese Press in Baltimore in 1950, but no Reeses Press. If the information was not fraudulent, the only other explanation would be that the printer misspelled the name of his own business.
Investigations of author Percy Seibert led to similar dead ends and contradictions. In TGEEBP's introduction, Seibert's background is given as a "...former Commissioner General of the Bolivian Railroad for the study of railways." While in Bolivia, the introduction goes on, Seibert "...met Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. He employed both at the Concordia Mine in Bolivia." Campbell contacted the Bolivian government which could not find any record of anyone named Seibert associated with the railroad system of that country.
The introduction to TGEEBP was allegedly written by Frank Fish who, as stated in the introduction, was "... proud to know Percy Seibert for so long and I hope I have been some help to him in the writing of this book." It was Fish, according to the references throughout the book, who owned the only known original dies used in making Tiffany belt buckles. Campbell's search for Fish took him to Amador, California. Authorities there told him Frank Fish was dead. He had been found murdered in his home on April 6, 1965. Within hours before or after his death, Fish's museum had been broken into and robbed.
By now, judging from the plagiarisms and other evidence, Campbell was convinced the fake buckle book could not possibly have been written before 1964 and believed it was most likely printed around 1970. This would obviously mean all information and quotations attributed to Fish were false since Fish had died in 1965. Campbell concluded that the real Frank Fish was an innocent victim. Knowing of his death, the person or persons responsible for TGEEBP, could use Fish's name on photo credits and quote him throughout the book without fear of contradiction. The "original die" and "rare plates" allegedly owned by Fish could never be examined because it could be said they were stolen in the museum robbery.
The final chapter
No individual, persons or companies were ever positively identified as the real writers/publishers of Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates. Neither was the source of the buckles ever identified. Campbell's book, New Belt Buckles of the Old West, was self-published and had very limited distribution although the exact number printed is unknown. His findings were never fully reported in the antique trade publications apparently for fear of legal entanglements.
The most complete record of new buckles ACRN was able to locate was a catalog published by Deane & Adams, 75 Upper Street, Islington, London, England (no date given, ca. 1970). In the catalog, numerous buckle designs are attributed specifically to Louis Comfort Tiffany and the credit line "Buckle photographs by kind permission of Tiffany & Company, London" appears on the catalog's copyright page. Whether Deane & Adams were the source of the new buckles or only sold them is unclear.
The real lesson of this story is that markings alone should never be used as the sole test of age or authenticity. When buyers place a value on a name, signature or company mark, they are creating a demand that fakers and forgers will always attempt to fill.
How an "original advertisement" for Tiffany buckles was created
One way the book Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates attempted to "document" the new buckles was with the faked advertisement shown in Fig. 20. This advertisement was made by combining pages from 19th century catlogs issued by Francis Bannerman, an authentic dealer in surplus military goods.