Fake Railroad Keys

With the ready availability of blank key stock and the ease with which such stock can be marked, it is no surprise that keys are among the most vulnerable artifacts for counterfeiting. Fake railroad keys have been reported since the early days of the hobby, and the problem is getting worse. Detecting them can be difficult and even controversial. Veteran collectors have disagreed over the authenticity of a given key, and there are no hard and fast rules that can distinguish the real thing from the counterfeit in every instance.

Nevertheless, collectors can protect themselves by applying the advice that is usually given with respect to all railroad collectibles: (1) learn as much as you can, (2) buy from known and trusted sources whenever possible, and (3) look at everything with a healthy dose of suspicion. Counterfeit keys are often detected by the lack of a patina -- what collectors sometimes call "pocket wear". Therefore beware of keys that look unused, have a rough surface, or have crisp, unworn initials. Also, be aware of the practice of grinding off common (less valuable) railroad initials on keys and stamping rarer ones in their place. This is particularly troublesome because the patina of the old key adds to the deception.

Bill and Sue Knous, in their book on counterfeit railroad collectibles list the following keys as having been reproduced in great numbers:

Railroad Manufacturer Serial #
CG&SJ RR    
NYO&W   1320
SA&AP RY    

Following are images of fakes or questionable keys that illustrate some of the different types of counterfeits that a collector may encounter. These images and accompanying information were generously provided by Larry Wolfe and Bill Pollard.

The infamous NYO&W #1320. Shown here are front and back views of a fake key pretending to be from the New, York, Ontario & Western Railway. Large numbers of these keys with the serial number "1320" have been produced. Note the lack of wear on this key, a tip-off that it might be a fake, even if not well known. Update. In early 2006, a collector emailed us about a variation seen on an internet auction.  It is identical to the one in the photo except the serial number 1320 has become 13208, and the word ADLAKE has been added on the side with the serial number.
FEC RY #7029. In the same league as the NYO&W key is this fake key marked for the Florida East Coast Railway. Front and back views are shown. Large numbers of such keys, marked "7029", have been made. Again, note the rather uneven but crisp (unworn) lettering as well as the total lack of wear on the hilt and barrel.
AT&SF. The key shown at left with the rather crude lettering appears to be from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway. In addition to the uneven lettering, this key has another odd quality: it's actually made of lead! The collector who provided these images says that the key not only looked odd but produced a dull sound when dropped on a hard surface -- unlike a real key which produces a metallic ring. Upon scratching the barrel (see image at right), he discovered that it was made of a soft metal, probably lead.
DSS&A. The key shown at left looks like it was made for the Duluth, South Shore & Atlantic Railroad. Someone who looked only at the lettering might be reassured by the apparent wear - a quality collectors call "pocket worn." However, the wear on the lettering is inconsistent with the rest of the key, particularly the reverse side of the hilt (see close-up at right), which looks new and unused. One likely explanation is that the "DSS&A" lettering was applied after the original lettering had been ground off. This is another trick of counterfeiters - substituting uncommon lettering for the initials of a less collectible railroad (in this case, possibly BN). The moral: make sure that a key shows the kind of even wear that you would expect to see as a result of actual service.

CO&G. In 2001-2002, a number of questionable or fake Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf (CO&G) keys have appeared.. The Choctaw, Oklahoma & Gulf was formed in the mid-1890s, and was acquired by the Rock Island in mid-1902. It was operated as a subsidiary of the Rock Island until 1904, at which time the company was assimilated into the Rock Island.

One questionable CO&G key appears to be a remarking of a modern Adlake key,shown upper right. The opposite side has the markings "A291" and "S". The markings seems old, and the key is worn, but it appears to be a more modern key than would be expected for the CO&G, given its history. For comparison, the key at left appears to be legitimate. The tapered barrel and more elaborate lettering suggest an earlier vintage key, consistent with the operating period of the CO&G.

The key at lower right is almost certainly a fake, with incorrect bit design, crude marking, evidence of chemical aging, and insufficient wear pattern.

Update: After this information was posted here, a veteran key collector, Greg Whitaker, sent us the following information in April 2003: The C.O.&G. RY key numbered A291 on the reverse is quite genuine and of the period. I have a key in this series numbered A693 I bought from Scott Arden [a well-known railroad artifacts dealer] over twenty years ago. At the same time I bought a cast C.O.&G. lock and key from him --same series key -- which I was unhappy with and returned. Both keys were A&W hex. I have many A&W hex and oval keys from this period. This is not an "ADLAKE" design key. This style key is A&W hex or oval--and NOT "ADLAKE"

Update Spring 2019: We receved the following email: "The chart above has the initials 'SA&AP RY', but there is a blank for serial number – I understand this particular fake usually has the word CAR instead of numbers … The chart as is rather implies that any key from that line is a fake, but apparently they are not, only fakes with CAR on them – and of course there are authentic CAR ones as well. Here is a photo of a fake example. I am told these were made as decorator items and always are bright brass. Authentic keys almost certainly won't have that kind of 'look' or finish, let alone an '8'c instead of an '&' which is another dead giveaway on the fakes."

See also Fake Conrail Keys and Fake New Old Stock Keys.

Special thanks to Bill and Sue Knous, Larry Wolfe, Bill Pollard, Jane Silvernail and Greg Whitaker.