Questions & Answers
Buying & Selling
Modern "Wells Fargo" Lock
Most railroadiana collectors are aware of the uncounted numbers of Wells Fargo reproductions that have been made over the last couple of decades. Most are cheaply-made imports, although some have fooled even experienced collectors.
The lock shown on this page is in a different category though. It is 9" x 5" in size, 7 lbs. in weight, and is edge stamped with "C.B. Groesbeck and Sons Toledo Oregon W.F. Co. No. 21". The lock is accompanied by a long key marked "21". It is beautifully made; in fact, the level of craftsmanship is so high that it is easy to assume that it is a genuine antique reflecting bygone manufacturing quality.
However, the lock is, in fact, a modern hand-fabricated item from a hobbyist in Oregon, made in 1985. Strictly speaking, it is not a reproduction, since there was never an authentic version. Probably it is best regarded as a "fantasy" item, much in the same way that newly-made china that does not resemble known railroad patterns is known as "fantasy railroad china". Other tipoffs: According to Jim Bartz, a Wells Fargo expert, the "F" in Fargo is stamped out of the arc of the word "Fargo" suggesting hand stamping, Wells Fargo never marked items except wax sealers for a division (e.g., "San Francisco Division"), and the company always used the terms "W.F. & Co. Express" -- at least while they were an express business [see second comment below].
According to the hobbyist who made the lock, there are another five Wells Fargo locks of his out there, each probably a little different than the other. He also fabricated some V&T (Virginia & Truckee Railroad) locks with the front end of an engine on the lock. The lettering is hand stamped, one letter at a time, and each lock is individually numbered. All indications suggest no intent to actually deceive anyone. Rather, this is an instance of a hobbyist who has developed a high level of craftsmanship and who has custom-made a few items for lock collectors who know exactly what they are getting. Of course, problems may occur down line when these locks change hands. People may simply assume that "C.B. Groesbeck and Sons" is an historical company, and that the level of craftsmanship rules out the possibility that these are modern productions.
The story of this lock highlights some of the controversial aspects of fakes and reproductions. There is a tendency among some in the hobby to treat this whole issue as black and white, when in fact there are a lot of "gray areas". Some collectors feel there is room for reproductions and new "old" items as long as they can be identified in some way, even if it's very subtle. Others are not as lenient and feel that anything that is not clearly and obviously labeled as new is crossing the line. Strictly speaking, there is no law against making reproductions. There are potential problems with trademark infringement, for example putting a railroad logo protected by copyright on a newly made item, and there is a patchwork of laws against fraud -- knowingly representing a modern item as an antique with explicit intent to deceive. But no law prevents someone from making up ersatz railroad items, and in fact, most railroad shows have booths selling all kinds of railroad-marked pins, clocks, belt buckles, t-shirts, and other souvenirs. Today's collectors are usually not fooled by these items, but it's not impossible to imagine some antique dealer a hundred years from now selling a "genuine Santa Fe t-shirt" (!).
So what's the solution? Just the usual advice, given over and over again, on this website and by collectors organizations: (1) Do the research on items you're interested in, develop a healthy level of skepticism, and don't assume that your experience prevents you from being fooled. Even the experts have been fooled. (2) Support the collectors organizations and share your knowledge! By collaborating and pooling information, collectors can help each other navigate the complex issues of authenticity. In fact, the information on this page reflects some great information gathering, and now at least the story of these locks can be more widely known.
Acknowledgements. Special thanks to Mike Munson, Ken McCown, Jim Bartz, and Ken Stavinoha for photos and information!
"The ethics of all this are complicated and elusive. [The maker of this lock] was not entitled to label something 'Wells Fargo' and then sell it to someone based on the fact that it said 'Wells Fargo' -- even to the first buyer, who ordered it that way -- unless the first buyer WAS Wells Fargo. Use of the Wells Fargo name increased the value, both to the first buyer and obviously to any prospective future buyers, and that increase in value is what [the lock maker] is not entitled to claim, unless he has rights to the name. [The lock maker] himself alludes to hiding something; otherwise why does he bother to 'reverse code' his mfg. date? The only truly (adequately) honest approach, in my opinion, would be if the lock was plainly labeled 'mfd. [lock maker's name], Toledo, OR, 1980' or something similar."
"In July 1918, the express portion of Wells Fargo was separated and became part of American Railway Express Co., but the financial portion of the company remained, and does to this day. They simply dropped the word "express" from the company name. There are legitimate items out there from the post-express period for the Wells Fargo company which may be marked "W.F.& Co" or similar."
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