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Fakes I: Old Bells that Aren't
Three types of new sleigh bells are most often misrepresented as antiques in antique stores, flea markets, and online or live auctions. These are the petal, raspberry, and acorn designs. My goal in this article is to help you identify the modern versions of these sleigh bells from the antique ones.
First, some definitions:
After reading this article, see also Fakes II: Old Straps that Aren't , Fakes III: Case Studies, Dating Bells, and Bell Designs for more information. You can also compare the antique and new bells we have for sale.
New bells direct from the manufacturer have smooth surfaces with no cracks, holes, dings, or other typical signs of age or use.
Many artificially aged modern bells have a splotchy, rusty color that are never seen on antique bells. Other artificially aged modern bells can be varying shades of green, brown, or even black. Key signs of artificially aged sleigh bells are splotchy color on any one bell and a wide variation in color on bells next to each other on a strap.
The examples below are of petal bells, new and antique, but the basic information about bell color and texture also applies to other types of bells.
Unpolished antique bells of any style are brownish, blackish or greenish -- occasionally grayish. The color will be fairly even over the surface of each bell, and all bells on a strap will have consistent coloring. A tough layer of dirt and hardened harness oil often coats old, unpolished bells, making the surface of the bells dull and slightly rough to the touch and obscuring design details. This layer of grime cannot be reproduced by any aging technique that I know of.
Gently polished antique bells of any style tend to have a brownish gold or rosy gold color, sometimes with splotches of darker color. Antique bells often have a textured surface from the sand molds in which they were cast and from the dings and scrapes of long use. This surface texture tends to darken the apparent color of the bell, even after it is polished.
The classic "petal" bell is the sleigh bell most often sold as an "instant antique". There are several key characteristics that differentiate new petal bells from antique petal bells: the design of the throat (slit), the quality of the ornamentation, and the size of the larger bells.
Throat design: If you take away just one idea from this article, remember this: An antique "petal" bell always has a larger rounded opening cast into each end of its throat (slit.) Modern petal bells have a constant-width throat, with just a few rare exceptions. This rule of thumb works for petal bells, but does not apply to other styles of bells.
Ornamentation: The ornamentation -- the size markings and petal designs -- on new bells will be blocky and plain, often coarse looking, with wide, deep lines. The ornamentation on an antique bell will be more crisp, ornate, and delicate. Study the photographs throughout this article to educate your eye on the differences.
Sizing: Larger modern and antique petal bells are sized quite differently. A modern #18 bell, for example, will measure about 3 1/4" across, but an antique #18 is larger -- just under 4" across. See the differences between new and antique #15 bells below. Read Sizing bells for more details.
Antique "raspberry" bells and "acorn" bells are unusual and highly collectible. This scarcity is a great incentive to turn modern versions of these bells into "instant antiques" and sell them for steep antique prices. Both styles of bells are still made, although with telling differences from the antiques. When turned into "instant antiques", new raspberry and acorn bells are usually darkened with a tell-tale rusty patina, and put on straps made of recycled leather.
Antique raspberry bells (also known as "fish scale" bells) are almost never seen on the North American collectibles market. It is wise to assume any raspberry bell you find is a modern "instant antique" until the facts clearly prove otherwise.
Antique acorn bells are not as rare; there were several North American manufacturers of this style, so several versions appear on the collectibles market. A key identifier of antique acorn bells is they are rivet style bells without exception. Modern acorn bells have a shank base and are fastened onto their strap with figure-8 bell pins.
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