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How to tell fake from real in vintage automobile-related signs


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I know a lot of us collect vintage automobilia, and especially car-related signs, for our garages.  I was wondering if any one here was a particular expert in how to tell real signs from fake ones.  With prices of signs (especially porcelain) so high, you can spend a lot of money to decorate your garage with car signs.  But it can be hard to tell the real from the fake, and I was wondering if anyone here had particularly good tips for how to tell the difference.  

 

I've used a few guideposts in the past.  First,  I have felt relatively safe buying signs that are common and inexpensive, on the thinking that no one is going to bother making good reproductions of signs that are inexpensive even if original.  But that strategy seems less effective these days, as prices have gotten so high on everything.  Second,  I have felt comfortable buying from people who have had their signs for a long long time.  But that can be hard to do in an ebay world.   Finally, some fakes are obvious, especially for very valuable signs.  But it seems like the fakes are getting better and better. 

 

Anyway, I was wondering if anyone had particular tips. Are there experts on this stuff, or on particular kinds of signs?  Or are the fakes so good that there's really no way to tell?

 

Oh, and we've had some threads on signs before, so I hope it's not too off topic.  Thanks!

 

 

 

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Good topic.  A short and simple answer is "I think you have to see the sign in person".  You mention buying off ebay.  Without taking a look at it in person and putting your hands on it, you will be relying on the knowledge and honesty of the seller.  I like this type of stuff too and have some of it.  I try to buy at off the beaten path antique stores in rural areas where I can check it out myself, or I'll use Craigslist, Facebook marketplace, etc.......and go look in person.  Prices do seem to be crazy and I wonder if there is a correction sometime in the future.  Great stuff has just gotten very pricey.  I have always wanted a Packard Dealership sign.  With prices like this: https://www.mecum.com/lots/SC0517-283058/packard-neon-sign/  I can't justify pulling the trigger, unless I stumble on one hidden away in someones barn needing restoration.  I have a  close friend who has a lot of signage, high end stuff, large porcelain, Neon dealership signs, and others.  He is always looking and finds great deals.  He seems to stumble on things that are a value (and real, not reproductions) when He is in a mom and pop "junk or antique store" in rural/small town places.  

 

As for the skill to tell the reproductions......my experience is that the reproductions are pretty obvious.  But you could get fooled buying sight unseen.  

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Posted (edited)
41 minutes ago, John Bloom said:

Good topic.  A short and simple answer is "I think you have to see the sign in person".  You mention buying off ebay.  Without taking a look at it in person and putting your hands on it, you will be relying on the knowledge and honesty of the seller.  I like this type of stuff too and have some of it.  I try to buy at off the beaten path antique stores in rural areas where I can check it out myself, or I'll use Craigslist, Facebook marketplace, etc.......and go look in person.  Prices do seem to be crazy and I wonder if there is a correction sometime in the future.  Great stuff has just gotten very pricey.  I have always wanted a Packard Dealership sign.  With prices like this: https://www.mecum.com/lots/SC0517-283058/packard-neon-sign/  I can't justify pulling the trigger, unless I stumble on one hidden away in someones barn needing restoration.  I have a  close friend who has a lot of signage, high end stuff, large porcelain, Neon dealership signs, and others.  He is always looking and finds great deals.  He seems to stumble on things that are a value (and real, not reproductions) when He is in a mom and pop "junk or antique store" in rural/small town places.  

 

As for the skill to tell the reproductions......my experience is that the reproductions are pretty obvious.  But you could get fooled buying sight unseen.  

 

I was buying a lot of smaller signs on ebay about a decade ago, things like gas station pump plates, and one thing I did was study the pictures of a lot of listings to try to spot common features of fakes.  I avoided a lot of mistakes that way, I think. But there's still one pump plate I bought for something like $180 after studying the pictures and markings online that to this day I can't tell is real or fake (although I suspect is a repro). 

 

As for Packard dealer signs, I lucked into buying one about five years ago at way below market.  Just being in the right place at the right time. It can happen!

 

 

Edited by 1935Packard (see edit history)
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One more thought:  there are some good discussions of specific signs over at OldGas.com.  One thing you can do is do a search there for the kind of sign you are looking for: if you're lucky, there will be a thread on that exact kind of sig about how to spot a fake.  But a lot of times there's no thread for that kind of sign, although I suppose you could start one! 

 

https://www.oldgas.com/forum/ubbthreads.php?ubb=postlist&Board=8

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8 minutes ago, 1935Packard said:

 

 

As for Packard dealer signs, I lucked into buying one about five years ago at way below market.  Just being in the right place at the right time. It can happen!

 

 

Since you dropped that good information, let’s see that Packard Sign!

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Sign prices are insane........and unusual sings are no longer based in reality. I have seen a Packard dealership sign sell in the six figures. It was perfect.......and had fantastic eyeball. Like most things, years of exposure is the best guide when making a purchase. The more you see and handle in person the less likely you are to get burned. If you buy reform a reputable dealer you will get a guarantee.........but you won’t get a bargain. Morphy’s Auction house is the best way to keep up with signs today. They have fantastic photos and descriptions. You can get the estimates and sales results also. Recently I was asked to verify a factory Pierce sign, and I determined it was a reproduction. The dealer who sold it “gave me a lesson” on why it was real.....which was interesting and factual, and how to identify the real from the reproductions. In my opinion after the lesson and additional knowledge I still think it’s a reproduction. Fortunately 99 percent of the fake stuff is usually easy to spot in person. Fact is there are very few perfect signs, and the great ones are incredibly expensive. Ten decent signs could easily run you the cost of a nice open Packard from the 30’s. Myself, I prefer the cars. Back in the 80’s I tried to buy a 1931 Cadillac dealership sign. I had 3500 to spend and was sure I would own it . It sold for 23k back then............and has gone on to the 200’s last I knew. The top end sign world is just like the top end car world.........deep pockets buy what they want regardless of price.

 

Check out this site........   www.morphyauction.com

 

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Edited by edinmass (see edit history)
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My signage and automobilia stuff is modest.  I enjoy it but like Ed, at a certain price point, I'd rather have a car........  I have had the enjoyment of being around for many years with a close friend who has lots of great stuff.  I marvel at some of the deals he has gotten.  If you are willing to restore (paint) there are diamonds in the rough out there.  I love the large dealership signs of the Neon era.  Speaking of that.  A reliable neon guy is a valuable resource.  I've witnessed some of the troubles my friend has gone through getting custom neon work done for larger signs.  If anyone has had a good experience with a neon guy in the Chicago area, drop me their contact information.  

 

some tips from my friend:  Thickness of the metal in the sign, obvious indication of "fake" distress, or acid induced rust, dimensions close but not correct.  

 

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Like many collectors of old cars I like the related signs, mascots, etc. I do believe that the statement that the thickness of the metal the sign is made of can be a good indication if it is real or repro.  As mentioned here also, although I love the Automobilia it does not take priority over ( for me ) owning and especially driving and riding in  a pre war car.  Can't help it, there is just something about a car with running boards, a flat glass windshield, etc. that just speaks to me - a functional piece of history that still works well the way it was made 80+ years after the fact. Integrity, craftsmanship, and style all in motion. Going down the road you are sharing your happiness with the people who view the car/truck and it usually gets you a smile and sometimes a wave.

Walt

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Best way is to educate yourself as much as possible, then take a chance. I would think they would be pretty obvious, but I have seen some motorcycles with faked 'patina' that the average guy would have sworn was authentic. I knew a guy that knew a guy that worked for Disney was told that he 'faked' more than a few old bikes!

On the lighter side, I travel by a LARGE Pegasus sign every day. Still on the building and looks to be in great shape. My son thinks im crazy when i talk about stopping and making the guy an offer. Pretty sure he knows its worth something though. Also, in my travels in the backwoods of PA I ran across a really nice gulf sign still standing in the frame. Would have liked to have that one as well.

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I usually do an image search on the web when I find a sign I'm interested in,  if I'm not sure it's a repro.  If you see a bunch come up, proceed with caution and really analyze the photos to see if yours match the ones you can see are repros.  As mentioned,  most of the repros have a slight difference and a lack of genuine patina. 

It's no different with literature there are some darn good repros there as well.  So much I have a verified original in one hand and what I think is a reprint in the other and I'm at the point of looking for printed wear spots and not actual wear and scrutinizing oxidation of the staples. Even then I still post a few and say I can't tell if it's a reprint or not, just so the customer is aware it may not be original.  

Ironically I had a 41 Desoto piece that was really neat.  I get them ion once in a while when I buy collections.  Now it was in nice shape,  just like another 1 or 2 I had.  I sold it to a guy and he wrote me after getting it, that it was a reprint and had a small note to that fact in tiny letter on the back along with other writing.  I checked the other in the same shape I had in my stock and that one didn't have it.  Otherwise the brochure,  and we are talking a very unusual black brochure that looks like everything was done in color pencils and on craypaper would have ever been reproduced for a 1941 Desoto.  SO don't always assume unusual would make it original,  just a better chance it could be.  I obviously gave the guy his money back and he was happy with it,  told him to keep the brochure.  He said he couldn't believe anyone would have made a run of those either.  

I sitll rely on the image search best.  Seems to answer alot of questions pretty quickly. 

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With the sign market as it is today, this should be an interesting thread.  I'd venture a guess that 90% of car lovers decorate their walls with some kind of "period" advertising related to their car, or cars in general.  That sure creates a big market for signs and has driven the reproduction industry significantly. 


I've collected them a long time.  Glad I started when I did, and finally ran out of wall space.  (I am planning a small addition though.)  Almost all of my signs were bought and removed from the old garage walls they were hanging on.  Some were free for the taking.  Some were nailed up in barns or used to fill gaps in fences.  A few were half buried in the ground to hold back eroding soil or protect garden plots from animals digging up the veggies.  A very few were bought in flea markets, and those were acquired long before the flood of current reproductions screwed things up.  I do own a few repops though.  They are treasured gifts from good friends and family.  The problem will occur when I'm gone and the signs are resold (gee, wish I could get to that auction!).    Some sign dealer will get hold of some for resale and in his description on evil-bay will be something like "Guaranteed old, came from an old collection, or long-time collector" or something like that.  Good story but it means absolutely nothing to someone buying it.  


As has already been mentioned, do your own research and education.  Arm yourself with knowledge gained from handling the real thing and keep an open mind.  Get to know other serious collectors and buy from reputable sources.  As Steve has suggested, guys like Dan Matthews have got the knowledge to help.  He offers two excellent books "The Fine Art of Collecting & Displaying Petroliana" Volume I,  and Volume 2.  They will be a good resource for any collector (or potential collector.)

 

Some other great info can be found at the following websites:

http://www.porcelainsigns.com/how-to-tell-if-a-porcelain-sign-is-authentic/

https://www.antiqueadvertisingexpert.com/spotting-a-fake-signclues-from-the-expert/

http://www.simplyretrovintageco.com.au/spotting-fake-enamel-porcelain-signs/

 

There is plenty of great advice available and if you read through some of the info you'll find some common stuff. 

I always like to look a the back side of a sign.  There are big differences between reproductions and originals.  I like to see them in person and feel the weight of them.  Some of my larger signs are actually almost two-person carry they weigh so much.  Early signs were produced on iron plate.

 

I study the enameling carefully  It's applied in layers, white being the base coat that was fired first.  There is a big difference between real porcelain and baked on enamel so learn how that looks and feels. 

 

In short, sign collecting is one of the biggest "caveat emptor" markets out there right now and the vast majority of signs offered on evil-bay are phony. 

 

I've enjoyed learning how signs were made, and looking at the history of signs and sign collecting.  I lived in Scotland when collecting really began in the UK back in the early to mid 1970s.  Two guys who were pioneer collectors organized a traveling exhibition of their collection that rotated around various museums for a couple of years.  They published a series of books "Street Jewelry" which details some great historic information.  Long out of print, they are a great resource, and although covering mainly British signs, there is a lot to learn from them.  They remain among my favorite resources and are just plain enjoyable reading.  

 

Depending on your area of specific interest, you can find great info on signs related to Oilzum, Esso, etc. etc. 


Anxious to see others chime in to help.

Terry

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Edited by Terry Bond (see edit history)
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My experience with signs is that they sell for different money in different parts of the country.

 

A local auction I frequent (or did till the plague screwed up everything) often had very good quality originals along with the occasional repop. Prices were reasonable, in north central NC.

 

A competing auctioneer from about 150 miles away would come and bid the signs to 150-200% of average-to-high retail for this area and then resell them in the northeast, where they'd sell again for up to twice what he had paid for them.

 

You better believe I cut that oily sombich's profit on more than a few occasions, just for the sheer meanness of it!😼 and that is not how I normally behave! Once heard it said "ain't no friends in the auction house!" and he was one who was gonna win the bid at all costs. I like people like him. They're fun.

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I had a real nice double sided Supreme Oil flange sign, being used as a shelf in the garage of the original station owner. Really liked it, then its value exceeded the joy of looking at it along with a SUNOCO sign of the same size so they went off to the high bidder on eBay, no regrets. There was a TEXACO sign same size flange sign at the local Sunday swap meet with a hole cut in the center. Someone used it as a wall protector for a wood stove. I passed on it thinking it would be there the next week, it wasn't and I'm still kicking myself. It would have been a great functional piece in the garage, bound to start a story. Great part of the hobby, but I'd rather have my money tied up in car projects. Bob 

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Porcelain sign makers "back in the day" took a LOT of pride in their finished product. A good rule of thumb is to study the quality and font of the lettering of the sign you're looking at. Letters should be even in size and not sloppy in appearance. With the cost of signs today, you certainly need to be wary of fake signs, many of these come from India, and are sold on Ebay

I have attached 2 pictures-the first is a reproduction Studebaker sign, the second is an original. Take some time, and study the letters on each sign, particularly the "R" in service. Look at the spacing and differing size of the all letters on the first,the reproduction sign. And look at the letters on the original, you can spot the difference between the two. It takes time and practice, but you'll learn to be able to spot a reproduction, especially a poor one.

Stay away from buying signs on Ebay.

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Edited by car crazy (see edit history)
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For what it's worth, here's the pump plate I bought a few years ago from ebay that was sold as being original but that I think is likely a reproduction.  It looks old, but there are some odd things about it -- in particular, bottom left, where there would be identifying marks happens to be scratches just right there.   I assume it's a reproduction and I fell for it, but I don't know for sure.  Anyway, I haven't bought a sign on ebay since then.

 

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I have a feeling signs will some day go as the antique furniture, glass to the Beene Bear market did. I also notice auction houses selling off many private car collections in the past year if there is any reason for that.  

I myself am keeping my hoard of cars gas pumps and signs to let my estate worry about disposing of.

Edited by Joe in Canada (see edit history)
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I use to collect WWII Nazi memorabilia back in the 60's-70's.  Lot's of reproductions in that hobby!  Some of the items especially medals or badges.  Were made by the Germans themselves after the war was over with the original machinery.   In order to sell to souvenir hungry GI's.*   The best original metal sign I have is a 50's Harley-Davidson oil change chalk board one.  I found it in an old H-D dealership in 1976.  It was laying up against a wall in a corner of the sales area.  I got it for a $1.50 along with a 1957 H-D metal ash tray for .75 cents.  The neatest automotive sign I found was on greedBay about 12 years ago before prices got crazy.  It is an original 1929 Chevrolet dealership poster advertising the "new" '29 Chevy.  The poster (approx. 3x5 feet) was never used and is in its original shipping carton with an instruction sheet on how to mount it.  At one time I was going to have the poster linen mounted, but never got around to it.  Beautiful colors in the picture and I paid $65.00 for it.

 

Capt. Harley😉

 

PS:  "In WWII the Russians fought for Mother Russia, The English fought for the King and the Americans fought for anything they could get their hands on!"

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2 hours ago, Captain Harley said:

PS:  "In WWII the Russians fought for Mother Russia, The English fought for the King and the Americans fought for anything they could get their hands on!"

Maybe they just wanted a little compensation for being torn out of their homes to go save half of Europe's butt again. Not really justifiable payment for the amount of American lives lost. Even if they turned it all over to us. Then we still get to pay today to defend it to this day.

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I have a few signs decorating my garage. They come under the heading of "things I saved that were too good to throw away". I can't think of any sign I would want that I couldn't have a sign shop make up for me for a couple hundred bucks.

 

I think it may have been New York Life that sent  me a collection management brochure telling me how they would plan succession management of all my car stuff. My wife knows who my friends are and that she should let anyone of them take a memento from my stuff should I pass. When I got the New York Life thing I told her the agent was a good guy. He could have something too.

 

Signs, buy low, sell high.

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One thing to keep in mind is that some of the great signs have been reproduced several times by several different people. The quality can range from "obvious fake" to "amazing original".  It was during the late 1980s that the sign market really began to take off and prices starting soaring. With the increase of demand and increase of prices, the fakes instantly started to appear. Some of the better fakes are now almost 40 years old. 

 

 

 

Like anything else, buyer beware and if it looks to good to be true, it probably is.

 

If you are going to invest in seriously expensive signs, buy from a reputable dealer that will stand behind his product, such as  Dan Matthews mentioned above, Morphy Auctions in Pennsylvania, etc. 

 

If you are buying cheaper signs, buy them because you like them and you can afford them-not because they are blue chip investments. 

Edited by motoringicons (see edit history)
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1935 Packard, that Standard sign looks pretty good to me, not knowing any better I would say its original. Even if not its still a pretty cool piece of wall art. I remodeled a store a few years ago and there were some old Marlboro signs that I saved, doubt they were worth anything but thought they would be good for a garage wall (even thought I dont smoke). Ironically they went up in smoke in a fire!

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I remember a Hershey back in the early 1990s. A very reputable (?) automobilia dealer (recently deceased) unloaded an AMAZING Packard sign like no one had ever seen before on Wednesday. It was instantly snapped up for around 15K. The next Thursday, another one of those signs was found on another field at the booth of a " friend " of this dealer and also sold for about the same money. The dealer that sold the first one just "happened" to have another and he sold if for nearly 20K on Friday. The three buyers, who knew each other and were competing collectors obviously got suspicious. The dealer's story was that all three signs were found at the same Packard dealership. A closer inspection revealed otherwise and these signs were created almost four decades after Packard's demise. One of the signs was purchased by a major sign collector from the south who  had "connections" and would not have been afraid to use them.  Needless to say, after much discussion, all three buyers got their money back. Of course, these signs were fake. One of them recently sold at auction and the auction company honestly labeled it as a "1990s high quality, limited reproduction made from a photograph of a real sign".

Edited by motoringicons (see edit history)
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If people fake cars, faking a sign is easy. Most people are too lazy to do a perfect job, and thus an experienced eye will often catch mistakes. I was looking over a fabulous unknown Cadillac with a body that was on the factory offering list, but none were known to have been built. I had a chance to buy it on the spot...........that was the first red flag......no time to contact GM and get a copy of the build sheet. Red Flag number two, while a great car and restoration,  there were no known photos of the car of any age. I went over the car in detail for almost two hours before I found a clue it was “modern” 1970’s construction. I showed the seller what I found. He smiled and admitted his father was a Fleetwood Body factory employee before the war and built it in his garage. (From factory plans he had kept.) I’m sure the detail that tipped me off has been changed out and there will be another unsuspecting buyer......with the take it now or leave it deal. No car is real without provenance that is iron clad. The same goes for signs. Any deal that is time sensitive on the fast side is a HUGE red flag. Reputable collectors of any item will always offer education and scholarship to a prospective buyer. If I’m selling something that is real; which is all I will handle,  I always explain how to spot the fakes and reproductions to the purchaser.

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Here’s one of my regrets... these were at an on-site, no phone bid auction in October which I went to buy something completely unrelated to cars. I had spent several thousand before lunch and decided I didn’t have the bank account nor time to see how much it would go for. Going by the auction so far they were a few hours away and I had a 17 hour drive home... I regret not hanging around if for no other reason than to see just how crazy they sold for, but hindsight is 20-20!

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They do a good job of faking them in India.  At the 100-200 range though for something that is super cool looking,  even if it's a fake,  is it really a huge loss? Unless your buying it thinking you were steeling it.  If you were just buying it for a wall hanger to enjoy, I have plunked almost that down on a repro flange sign I knew was repro,  because it had a cool graphic and I wanted a flange sign.  One of the few known repros I have bought,  but we have probably all spent more than that on a decorative piece just to enjoy before.  Now when talking thousands of dollars,  that's a different story.  Most I have ever spent was $600. and a couple in the $500 range.  The 600 was a 40 foot long Neon sign from the 80's that says COACH HOUSE.  Super cool and they were going to scrap it if I didn't buy it. 

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There are many books out there for sign collectors, but I have been a member of an internet group for approx. 16 years called: Petrolania.com

It has many knowledgeable members who generally are willing to help and educate. But still it can be easy to "Get Burnt".

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Getting burnt in collecting is the cost of your education..............it’s part of the game. The question is are you a fast learner. And are you paying for a PHD!

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One last thought........if you buy something you like, you NEVER get burned. That’s why I only flip cars I’m willing to keep and drive for ten years. It makes for a great sales pitch, because I truly mean it when I tell the prospective purchaser...........”I really don’t care if I sell it.” Add in that I never deal in junk, and most of my stuff is five times better than what they see out there...........and they don’t take offense to it. My other comment is usually............have you seen anything half’s as good at any price? And I usually get a honest answer back. People will step up and pay for quality. And it doesn’t leave a bad taste in their mouth after the sale when they realized they bought a great car. 

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20 hours ago, 1935Packard said:

For what it's worth, here's the pump plate I bought a few years ago from ebay that was sold as being original but that I think is likely a reproduction.  It looks old, but there are some odd things about it -- in particular, bottom left, where there would be identifying marks happens to be scratches just right there.   I assume it's a reproduction and I fell for it, but I don't know for sure.  Anyway, I haven't bought a sign on ebay since then.

 

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Not sure but is the 48 in the lower right part of the picture a year number ?

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4 hours ago, auburnseeker said:

They do a good job of faking them in India.  At the 100-200 range though for something that is super cool looking,  even if it's a fake,  is it really a huge loss? Unless your buying it thinking you were steeling it.  If you were just buying it for a wall hanger to enjoy, I have plunked almost that down on a repro flange sign I knew was repro,  because it had a cool graphic and I wanted a flange sign.  One of the few known repros I have bought,  but we have probably all spent more than that on a decorative piece just to enjoy before.  Now when talking thousands of dollars,  that's a different story.  Most I have ever spent was $600. and a couple in the $500 range.  The 600 was a 40 foot long Neon sign from the 80's that says COACH HOUSE.  Super cool and they were going to scrap it if I didn't buy it. 

 

Given that reproductions are usually worth a small fraction of the real thing, paying top dollar for a sign that you think is original, but that turns out to be a worthless reproduction, can feel like a pretty huge loss  to me. 

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2 hours ago, Morgansdad said:

Not sure but is the 48 in the lower right part of the picture a year number ?

 

The Red Crown pump plates have two markings, one on the left and one on the right.  I think one on the right is the date, so I think it's supposed to be saying it's from 1948, but I'm not sure.   By the way, here's one that was sold at auction recently as a reproduction that has both markings:

 

https://www.mecum.com/lots/CH1018-346102/standard-red-crown-ssp-pump-plate-reproduction/

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Look at the venue for the above sign..........great signs go to the great auction houses. You don’t see type 57SC Bugatti’s at Mecum. For a reason. If your hunting the best stuff, you usually need to deal with well known high end dealers, or old established collectors. Diamonds in the rough are possible but rare. Usually buying from a well curated collection (of anything) is your best bet to get good stuff.

Edited by edinmass (see edit history)
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