How to Spot a Fake

I regularly field the question, “How do you spot a fake?” Unfortunately, there is no easy answer to this question. In fact, there are as many answers as there are materials comprising art and antiques. Like most things in the art and antiques arena, there are many different objects with varied characteristics. So, spotting a fake in one category of antiques is different than recognizing a fake in another category. Did you know that an authentic piece of Roseville pottery must have “USA” as part of the maker’s mark? Were you aware that some pictures that look like real oil paintings are actually prints with clear varnish applied atop the printed image to simulate brushstrokes? And did you know that some pieces of sculpture are cast using a cheap metal and then patinated or colored to resemble a more expensive metal? Those are the facts. And, here are some more tips for steering clear of the fakes.

Ivory versus bone

Ivory is that lovely, natural material that is often used to make carvings. Many people ask me how to tell the difference between ivory and bone. Examine your piece and look to see if there is a striped pattern in the material. If you see a lighter and darker striped pattern, then odds are you have a piece of bone.

It is a little bit trickier to identify a piece of ivory and to tell the difference between one type of ivory and another. Ivory may be elephant, fossil, hippopotamus, walrus, sperm whale, hornbill, or synthetic. Elephant and walrus ivory are most common. And, elephant ivory is distinguished by a see-thru style of crosshatching whereas walrus ivory demonstrates a marble pattern.

Ivory is smooth in color and texture and it typically will, over time, age to reveal a light butterscotch color—a true sign of the real thing.

Real pearls versus fake pearls

I have heard a lot of people tell me that they have a hard time telling a real set of pearls from a strand of fake pearls. I often joke with my audiences that if you can’t tell the difference between the real thing and the fake, then you need to buy more pearls!

Old strands of pearls–many of them from the 1940s and 1950s when they were THE fashion statement of the day—were often reproduced in many different materials that many people have a hard time telling the real pearl from the fake. Fake pearls can be made of just about anything. Some fake pearls are just formed into round pearls from fish skeletons, molded plastic, and resin. Cultured pearls usually have a consistent sheen and color and they are not lightweight.

Learn to tell the difference between the real deal and the fake by studying the materials and the method for making your favorite antique or collectible. Educate your eyeballs by visiting museums that display the real thing and don’t let it go until you know what you’ve really got.


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