Fake and Reproduction RR Lanterns: Alterations

The most common and insidious type of fake lantern frame involves altering an existing frame, usually by adding markings of a rare railroad. Since railroad markings are one of the most important factors in determining value, this counterfeiting method is a serious problem for collectors. The best defense here is careful inspection of lettering. The original manufacturers used dies to emboss lantern frames, and generally the lettering was evenly done and consistent in style from lantern to lantern. Unfortunately, some of these original dies are rumored to have been used to produce fake markings, so clean lettering is not an automatic indicator of authenticity.

Generally, collectors are advised to inspect embossed lettering for:

  • unevenness and crude workmanship;
  • breaks in the surface plating or "tin" possibly indicating that the lettering was done later than when the frame was produced;
  • differences in lettering style ("font" type or size) compared to other examples of lettering from the same manufacturer.

Note that it is fairly common from the embossed or stamped letters to have holes or tiny perforations through the surface of the lid, either through corrosion or a strong original strike by the manufacturer, so this in itself is not a cause for concern.

In addition to embossing, there are instances of tags soldered to the lids of lanterns to suggest identification with a particular railroad. Some of these tags are known to be authentic -- a few railroads, particularly short lines, actually did this in lieu of embossing -- so tagged lanterns cannot be automatically considered fakes.

The following information on known or suspected lantern alterations has been obtained from various sources judged to be knowledgeable and accurate. The information is presented with "honest intentions"; however we cannot guarantee complete accuracy, so please use this information as advisory only -- see Disclaimer.

Fake L&HR RR (not "RY") markings on Dietz Vesta lanterns were done about 15 to 20 years ago and still show up in the market, including Internet auction sites. The markings are slightly smaller than those seen on authentic Dietz lantern markings. The consensus among L&HR experts is that all authentic Vestas from this railroad were marked as "L&HR Ry". Also a reported tipoff is that some of the fakes have a barely visible frame around the marking, although this may not necessarily be present on all the fakes. In addition to the characteristics noted above, the lettering is rather uneven and has the appearance that the letters were done with individual dies one at a time.

Another known Vesta Fake is one marked "G. & U. R.R." According to Tom Stranko, "Note the poor definition on the letters. The style and size of letter is not correct for a Vesta but is so close as to pose a difficult challenge unless you really LOOK at the stamping. Letters appear to be RR Signal Lamp & Lantern Co. style."

At one time fakes such as this were being made in western NY. They were all done on typical unmarked brass top, bell-bottom lantern frames (mainly older Parmelee & Bonnell). They also displayed signs of having been dismantled and reassembled. The lettering style is small, almost like that of the RR Signal Lamp & Lantern company but a bit larger. The sample shown upper right is marked "D A V & P RY" and had been in a fire.

A&W 250 lanterns have shown up with the following fake markings: Sierra RR, T&T RR, N.N. RR, V&T RR. The best guess is that these are being done with a real A&W die set, since they appear to be very authentic.

Fake bellbottom lanterns marked "P.W. & B. R.R", "B.R.B. &L. R.R", "N.Y.B R.R." and N.Y.P. & O." have been coming into the market in recent years. These appear to be existing frames that have been altered by the addition of rare markings. The alterations have apparently involved some disassembly, and the workmanship in reassembling the pieces is quite shoddy. How many of these have been made is unknown. See pictures at left and below.
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Questionable Lettering. In a "grayer area" are judgments about authenticity based on lettering that is well-done but very unusual for the particular manufacturer. Among veteran lantern collectors, it is known that there have been a few individuals over the years who have produced counterfeit markings of high quality on lantern frames that were originally unmarked. The original lantern manufacturers produced a fairly large number of such unmarked frames for the generic market, so there is a lot of material available, even today, for this practice. How much counterfeit marking is going on currently is not known, but undoubtedly examples of this practice can still show up in today's collector's market.

To identify counterfeit markings, one approach is to compare lettering or "font" sizes and styles with known authentic examples. This approach is somewhat risky since the original lantern manufacturers were not necessarily completely standardized in their tooling, and it is also known that a fair amount of subcontracting occurred among manufacturers. Nevertheless, unusual lettering is a warning that something may not be right, and collectors are advised to beware, particularly with "big ticket" items. Shown here, courtesy of Tom Stranko, are some examples of questionable lettering. Upper Right. A fake Keystone "Casey" stamped (very nicely) using old style Adams & Westlake dies. Middle Right. A C.T. Ham lantern whose stamping dies were 1/2" tall and 3/8" or more wide. These tiny letters are totally atypical for this manufacturer. Far Lower right. An R.E. Dietz "Steelclad" lantern with lettering that is totally wrong for Dietz.

Modified A&W Kero. The following was sent in by a collector regarding a modified (faked) A&W Kero. "I bought recently at an auction a Texas and New Orleans short globe Adlake Kero lantern.  I bought the lantern for the etched red short globe and paid accordingly.  The lantern pot was stamped 3-41 so the age was correct.  I was suspicious that the top had been faked because the T&NO lettering was straight across, was also not correct for an adlake lantern of that vintage.  The top latch was also of post 1960 construction, the top actually read Adlake Kero, and the top appeared to have been soldered on to the hinge.  When I got the lantern home,  it was obvious that the lettering had been applied later, but aged on the outside of the top to look old.  There was also an aged solder spot in the top of the lantern, which  covered up a PC mating worms logo. So it appears that even short globe lanterns are not safe from fakes.  In my case I was lucky because I bought the lantern for the globe, and it fits my 250 kero just fine." 

Additional Comments:

Scott Czaja, noted authority on early New England and fixed-globe lanterns, was asked to comment on fake, fixed globe lanterns and suggested that things to watch out for are (1) whether the plaster is all original, (2) whether there are any vertical mold seams (indicating the globe was made later), and (3) similarity to known, legitimate examples (although this is tricky because there were many little glass companies all over New England and therefore many differences in style.) Scott also indicated, "There seems to be "cut fixed globe" phobia in the hobby. I always want to know WHO says it's no good and, more important, WHY they think that it is no good. Yes, there were fakes made in New England going back 12-20 years ago. Many are not hard to spot for many reasons. Others are very good."

Other comment: "Just a note that your discussion does not take into consideration that a production line must periodically retool.  The run time of the Vesta lamp alone would suggest the possibility of slight variations in the letters over the entire period.  Along that line of reasoning, assuming the lids were stamped on two production lines it is also not unlikely that the two lines would have slight variations in the dies at the same period.  I appreciate the concern as much as any of us, yet I believe you are missing opportunities by being overly suspicious of variations.  Styles do and did change.  Should not a more critical criteria be the fit and alignment of the stamping to the place allowed for it? And even here I have seen variations on the same railroad that in your analysis would be "fake" when I know by source it is correct.  Am I correct that the manufacturer's applied road initials are not "stamped" into the metal as has been suggested but are rather "pressed" into it?  The result is quite different and not easily faked on old and cold metal. Some of the examples shown would have fooled me (I've only seen the photos)  on several.  I can't imagine anyone successfully stamping that old metal, must less removing the lids and pressing it.

Years ago, 1973 or thereabouts, while touring the Maine Central Shops at Waterville Maine I noticed in their tin shop that their craftsman performed the functions of repairing lanterns. Rather than throw away a lantern they restored them and put them back out and/or actually made them. How long before my visit that work had ceased in that portion of the complex I do not know. It must have been years though, the dust was thick, and as I recall, work in progress was left right on the bench when the workers moved on. - Paul Larner 2/06

Thanks to Dave H., Roger Schmorr, Ted Douthitt, John Brainard, Paul Larner, and especially Tom Stranko