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