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HOME > Short Stories > The Gentle Art of Faking > CHAPTER XXII METAL FAKES
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  Metal work—The bronze family: brass, copper, and their various colours and patinæ—Beaten iron work—Arms and armour—Artificial rust and chemical oxidation—When the imitators of arms and armour used steel and when iron—Cast iron pieces—Chemical tests—Difficulties in the connoisseurship of arms and the story of three shields—Old and modern imitations—Silver work—Its colour and oxidization—Why artistic pieces in precious metal are in danger of being destroyed—Fashion one of the dangers of silver plate—How far reliance may be placed in marks—Gold work—The tiara of Saitafernes—Jewels and their extreme rarity—Imitations and forgeries of all ages—Advice to the non-initiated in the art of buying jewels.

When speaking in another part of this work about the methods of conferring an appearance of age to newly cast bronze, we remarked that the faker’s best accomplice in the ageing process was chemistry. The colouring and bronzing of metals in fact is usually accomplished by one of two methods, by the action of chemicals or by the application of bronze powders rendered impalpable and used as a pigment.

The latter method is mostly used in modern industrial art, but has, nevertheless, been applied in imitating antiques and in disguising mended parts, etc. It is often used with success in the case of imitations of excavated objects which generally have a bluish-green patina. This may be imitated to deceive the eye of the beginner only, by the application of green-bronze lacquer of a dull lustre, or of green varnish. The green of the bronze colour is best prepared by mixing Frankfort black with chrome yellow.

These are, however, but cheap and not always convincing expedients, the real way to give tone and colour to bronze and other metals is by resort to chemistry.

264 A brown colour on bronze, for instance, may be obtained by preparing a sand bath large enough to contain the article to be bronzed. When the object has been cleansed from all grease by dipping in boiling potash lye, it is treated with white vinegar. After this preliminary operation the object is wiped thoroughly dry and then rubbed with a linen rag moistened with hydrochloric acid. When this coating is perfectly dry—a quarter of an hour is sufficient—the article must be heated in the sand bath until it has acquired a bluish tint, and a final rubbing with a linen rag soaked in olive oil will change the blue colour to brown.

Recipes and processes are endless and so rich in hues that almost any tone may be obtained. To any interested in this branch of imitating old metals we can but suggest the excellent book, The Metal Worker’s Handy Book, edited by William T. Brannt.

As we have said, there are many methods by which to give the proper patina to metals, and a good deal of mystery, some fakers and imitators claiming to be in possession of unrevealed secrets.

When exposed to the air for a long time, copper and bronze acquire a fine brown or green patina which, as every collector knows, greatly enhances the merits of an artistic piece in these two metals. A perfect imitation of the result of a long process of time is not an easy matter, in fact an almost impossible task.

Formerly the patina of a bronze was in a way the final test of authenticity, but nowadays there are modern imitations of so deceptive a character that the best connoisseurs are taken in.

One of the best known methods by which old patina is imitated on copper and bronze, is to follow as closely as possible the process by which the genuine patina is produced. Thus the action of rain, interment, immersion in some permeating substance that will generate hydrosulphuric acid are called into service by those willing to wait a comparatively long time for the desired effects. Others accelerate265 the above process by increasing the proportion of the natural conducive elements. The objects are also treated with water containing ammonia, carbonic acid, etc., exposed to the intense and direct action of vapour or vaporized acid in order to produce those basic salts that form a certain patina.

To obtain the malachite kind of patina that generally characterizes objects found in the ground, the imitator generally brushes the metal over with a very weak solution of cupric nitrate to which a small quantity of common salt in solution may be added. When completely dry it is again brushed over with a liquid consisting of one hundred parts of weak vinegar, five of sal-ammoniac and one of oxalic acid, and the application is repeated after the first has dried. In about a week’s time the metal will have acquired a green-brown colour that may be polished with encaustic if the patina is to have a shiny appearance.

Such is the leitmotiv, more or less, of the processes for obtaining the green or brown-green patinæ. Some dip the object in cupric acid and then place it in a room in which an excess of carbonic acid is produced, by others preference is given to one or the other element according to the tone and colour desired.

Brass articles are coated with green patina by a solution containing 150 parts of vinegar to which has been added ten parts of copper dissolved in twenty of nitric acid. An application of this liquid is generally made on the object.

The brown patina usually characterizing old medals is obtained in many ways. One is by heating the medal at the flame of a spirit lamp and then brushing it with graphite. To colour a number of medals at the same time, some imitators dissolve thirty parts of verdigris and thirty parts of sal-ammoniac in ten of water, adding water to the solution till a precipitate is no longer formed. Then the medals are placed in a shallow dish without touching one another and the boiling solution is poured over them. The medals are allowed to remain in the solution till they have acquired the desired tint, which should be a fine brown.

266 Green or bluish patinæ may also be given to bronze or copper by triturated copper carbonate used as a paint with a pale spirit varnish, shellac or sandarac, and applied with a brush.

Verdigris generally gives a bluish tint and crystallized verdigris a pale green tint. The two tones can be mingled to obtain some special hue.

Iron work is perhaps one of the easiest to imitate and give an appearance of antiquity. As far as the actual work is concerned, it rests entirely upon the skill and artistic taste of the worker. Patina on iron is either caused simply by rust or by a slow process of oxidation which confers a rich, dark tone to iron. There is also a special patina seen on iron that has been under water for a long time, but this is rare in imitations and very difficult to obtain.

The rusty coating on iron can be produced by almost any preparation capable of oxidizing the surface or transforming it into basic salt provided a red colour results, as with nitric or hydrochloric acid, for instance.

The brown patina is often obtained by oiling the piece and exposing it to the direct action of flame. The two methods may be alternated and the corrosion of the acid here and there adds character to the piece. Methods are so various, however, that the way to obtain a convincing patina is perhaps contained in the dictum of an Italian antiquary: “To inflict upon the object that is to be turned into an antique every possible indignity and abuse.”

The patina in imitations of old iron work is so well reproduced nowadays that even experts are unable to distinguish the real from the unreal with certainty, so much so that more than one has had recourse to an analysis of the composition of the iron in order to decide whether the object were modern or antique.
Lamp Designed by Professor Orlandini, Jun.


By Prof. Orlandini, an honest imitator of the Renaissance, who is responsible for many fine pieces of ornamental work and many good restorations of antique works.

This justifies the verdict of Moreau, an expert and celebrated artist in iron, who when called upon to decide whether a certain artistic key exhibited at the Paris World Exhibition of 1878 were really of ancient workmanship, replied that he267 could not tell unless he were allowed to break the key and examine the grain of iron.

Italy is one of the countries where the imitation of old iron is traditional. In olden times it was the work of Caparra and other artists of the Renaissance that were imitated, nowadays old models are reproduced for the benefit of the tourist, and some are conceived in the old style with extreme perfection for those collectors who go in for originals and who buy this modern work as genuine chefs-d’œuvre of the Quattrocento and Cinquecento.

Florence, Venice, and the town of Urbino furnish the Italian market with the best imitations of old candelabra, andirons, gates, lamps, and keys; in fact everything that is likely to attract the tourist or please the collector.

Nearly every country possesses good imitators of artistic old iron, which is perhaps due to the fact that such imitations do not require any great artistic ability, nor is the coat of rust on modern iron a matter incurring expense or complicated methods. The most difficult in this field are the imitations of arms of all kinds, which require a skilful workman and often a finished artist in iron work.

In this particular branch of faking it is not only a question of reproducing old weapons of a national character, but the forger frequently turns his attention to imitating arms of exotic type. We all know that Constantinople is the place par excellence for imitations of old Oriental arms and armour, but very few are aware that when they buy an Oriental poignard or Turkish gun ornamented with passages from the Koran in Africa, for instance, they are buying goods made in Germany. As a matter of fact, however, German factories supply Oriental maritime markets with all their fine arms. We still recollect the amazement of an American tourist who on returning from a fair near Tangiers showed the hotel-keeper his find, a fine Morocco knife with a carved scabbard in brass, and was told that it was German. As he persisted in his incredulity, the hotel-keeper showed him the mate of his bargain, which had been presented to him268 by the German commercial traveller who had lodged in his hotel.

As usual, collectors of the genre being diverse as to taste and calibre as connoisseurs, the accommodating faker has goods to suit the varied scale of his clients, or rather there are fakers of arms and armour like the Venetian rubbish which is for easily pleased greenhorns, and others producing fine goods for the man of exquisite taste such as the product of Vienna, Belgium, France, and sundry Italian artists of forged steel. We have purposely made a distinction by saying sundry Italian artists, because while the imitation of arms in other countries assumes the character of factory work of extremely good quality, in Italy the artist who forges steel, chisels it and imitates old weapons, is usually a solitary worker in his own home, a fact that makes him far more dangerous to the collector. These artists are often simply imitators of the old style whose work is sold by others as antique. One of them used to live in Lucca whose imitations of old daggers cinquedee or lingue di bove have become famous. Another in a town of Northern Italy, imitates Negroli and Milanese work with uncommon success.

Many of these artists, who imitated and copied old damascened work to perfection, with no thought of cheating, have executed fine work that can stand upon its own merits so to say. Such, for instance, is the work of Zuloaga, the father of the painter of that name, and of another Spaniard of repute in the artistic world, Mariano Fortuny. This excellent painter was also a first-rate chiseller and good artist in damascened work. He imitated the Moresque style to perfection. At the sale that took place after his death, one of his productions, a damascened sword, fetched the price of 15,000 francs, and was sold with no other recommendation than that of being a modern imitation of the antique by Mariano Fortuny.

In a letter written to the well-known amateur Baron Davillier, Fortuny speaks of a flourishing factory near his studio in which excellent imitations of armour were made,269 chiefly repoussé shields. It may be taken for granted that if such a judge as Fortuny called the imitation of this Roman work excellent, some of them are at present enriching well-known collections.

There is a scarcity of genuine pieces on the market, in fact hardly a single fine Cinquecento sword or halberd is to be seen in shops now or is for sale. The few still obtainable are poor specimens as a rule, and this fact ought to put the neophyte on his guard when he is offered some gorgeously ornamented sword, pike, ranseur or partisan lavishly chased and gilded.
* * * * *

Some years ago an elegant lady was asked why the fair sex preferred to dress elaborately rather than in the stylish simplicity of tailor-made gowns, to which she replied, “Perhaps because it is less expensive.” In a way the fine plain swords and unornamented pieces of armour are more difficult to fake; they would seem to demand the same eye for form as a perfectly cut, well-fitting, simple tailor-made gown. This combined with the collector’s cheap taste in arms may be the reason why the faker gives preference to imitations loaded with chased or damascened ornamentation, and enriched with gilding and elaborate arabesques.

The rarity of imitations of fine weapons characterized by elegant lines, simplicity and sobriety of ornament, suggested to the author some years ago the solution to a difficult problem propounded by Baron Nathaniel Rothschild.

When called to Baron Rothschild’s magnificent mansion in Vienna, I found this rich and sagacious collector had received two fine swords that were being offered for sale. One was simplicity itself, the other over-ornamented and lavishly gilded on blade and hilt.

“Which do you advise me to buy? I must decide between the two.”

To be frank, they both looked genuine to me, but the Baron’s question roused a suspicion in my mind that one of the two swords was a forgery.

270 “I should buy this one,” I answered, pointing to the sword almost deprived of ornament.

“You have a good eye,” complimented the Baron. “The other sword is an imitation, one of the most admirable I have ever seen.”

My discernment, however, was merely based on the accepted aphorism that the combination in art of simplicity and extreme elegance is difficult to imitate, otherwise who knows but what I might not have selected the faked sword.

It must be added here, that an imitation can very rarely bear close comparison with a genuine piece. The proximity of the genuine article is always rather disastrous to the fake, and never more so than in the case of arms and armour. This may be accounted for by the difference in the modern methods of working and ornamenting steel. These methods not only produce a difference in the raw and worked steel that connoisseurs claim to distinguish, but the ornamentation itself is wrought by other means. Engraved ornaments, especially on pieces that do not aim to deceive first-rate connoisseurs, are rarely done by the old method but preferably by acids.

Damascening, such as is rarely done now even in the East, was a skilful and complicated operation by which steel blades and armour were inlaid with gold or silver ornamentations. The designs were first cut deep into the steel with a burin, then the gold or silver was beaten in with a hammer, not only until the surface was smooth, but until the inset was securely worked into and he............
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