Most Vintage Metal Signs Are New


Price tags at antique malls and titles in online auctions include “vintage” but the vast majority of metal signs in the collectibles market today have been recently manufactured.


These widespread colorful signs featuring images, themes, occupations and iconic images broadly related to collectibles, antiques and nostalgic Americana. Some of the more frequently seen signs feature famous brands of soft drinks, liquors and beers, classic automobiles, patent medicines, farm implements and railroad lines.


New signs can be confusing for two reasons: 1) many include images, trademarks, slogans and unique colors virtually identical to those used on authentic original signs and other advertising; 2) the vast majority of the signs are manufactured with simulated scratches, rust, holes and other effects simulating wear and exposure. Although originally sold by wholesalers as new decorative items, these signs inevitably drift into the collectibles market where they are often confused with original vintage pieces.


Here are some basic steps to identify almost all of these new signs and separate them from vintage originals.


The first step is to simply look for a modern-sounding company name somewhere on the sign. “Desperate Enterprises Inc.”, one of the better known manufacturers of new signs, appears on the Farm Bureau Co-Op Chicks sign shown above. Names rarely appear on the front of the sign; most are marked along edges and backs. Most names, if present, are printed in very small letters, generally not much larger than the type size used in text books and newspapers.


Another clue to a recently made sign is the country of origin. Any sign marked “Made in China” is almost certainly new as are signs made in most Southeast Asian countries such as India, Indonesia, Taiwan and similar locations. Although a sign marked “Made in USA” is not necessarily a guarantee of age, virtually all “vintage” metal signs made in other countries are almost certain to be of recent manufacture.


If no modern company name or foreign country of origin is found, closely inspect any “wear” or “aging” on the sign. Virtually all such effects are part of the flat one dimensional printed surface. In other words, what appears to be small holes or paint flakes are actually printed images of holes and paint flakes. There is no actual gap in the metal or missing paint. The same is true of what appears to be rust, tarnish, oxidation and corrosion—such effects are only printed images, the new metal is sound and firm. Simply running a fingertip over any suspected “wear” will reveal whether the surface is actually altered as in true wear or whether it is a continuously flat newly printed image.


Most new signs are made of digitally edited images of original objects. If the original metal or cardboard package or similar object was chipped, creased or stained, those same flaws will be captured in the newly created images.


While it is perfectly legitimate to make and sell nostalgic-appearing signs as new decorative items, many of these pieces eventually end up being confused as vintage collectibles. Using the methods discussed above will help you identify and avoid paying vintage prices for new signs.



by Mark Chervenka

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