Pub Talk - “Authenticity – Real or Fake? Part I”

Big Red here at me favorite waterin hole, Cohan's Pub.

Pull up a chair, have a pint....

When collectors debate “authenticity” more often than not what they are really discussing, is if a helmet is “real or fake”. Interestingly, this debate is rarely about the helmet itself and more about customization done to the helmet in the form of names, numbers or painted markings. Basically, is the customization period done or a modern recreation done with the intent to deceive.

In 1868, during a boom of interest in Biblical Archaeology, a man named Moses Wilhelm Shapira opens an antiquities shop in Jerusalem. The shop struggled to make ends meet until Shapira was approached by an individual that explained if he changed his shop hours from day to nighttime, the shop could become “Made to order”. Shapira begins with low level forgery by slightly altering original artifacts but his success drives him to investigate ways he can expand.

The discovery of a stone tablet called the “Mesha Stele” engraved with a language known as Moabite took the archaeological and collecting community by storm. Shapira saw advantage here because little to nothing was known about the Moabite culture or what a Moabite should look like. This allowed him to move into high level forgery by altering, manipulating and outright fabricating sculpture, tablets and parchments. Because his creations initially had no parallel of comparison his forgeries avoided detection allowing him to fake an entire culture.

Individuals, like Shapira, become forgers for profit but over time and with success it becomes about the glory of the game. The “Game” is the challenge to fool the experts and enter their private inner circle of collecting. Good forgers understand that the game of any sphere of collecting is not just about the collectible but also politics, cash and envy. Learning which collectors have the financial resources or connections to attain the top pieces, those who don’t have and envy those that already do and the inherent political power struggle within the collecting hierarchy.

The best forgers learn how the members of the hierarchy identify fakes and forgeries, what their collecting ambitions are, who they are envious of and who has the means to spend. They then manipulate the members weaknesses and rise within the hierarchy themselves as an expert. Thankfully, their success usually leads them to be careless or to reach too high in their attempt to attain glory which exposes them. In Shapira’s case, he attempted to sell forged parchments to England in 1883 with a price tag so high they could not be purchased without assistance from the Crown. This ultimately brought enough experts into an otherwise private sale that the forgery was exposed.

Reproduction markings began innocently enough in the 1960s through the early 90s when there was little to no interest in the M-1 as a collectible. Many of these markings were made to have the fantasy painted piece a collector wanted or for use by living history reenactors. The M-1 collecting community saw the first big wave of historical interest in 1998 and despite its ups and downs, the market has remained high and where there is profit there are thieves and forgers.

Collector's Note: One of the hallmarks of early fantasy and the entire timeline for reproductions is the desire of the buyer to have Hollywood perfect markings.

Profits drive collecting and collecting at high profit attracts forgers. A new helmet will come up for auction and sell at a considerable profit which in turn causes similar items to pop up from the woodwork.  Forgers watch these trends because they are collectors of supply and demand, collector demand being high and actual availability of personalized helmets being low. They operate under the basic law of forgery, give the people what they want and when supply is gone and demand is still there, the forged artifacts fill the void.

The way any Archaeologist, Antiquarian or Antique Collector derives their initial basis for authenticating a historical item is comparison. The problem with painted helmets is, despite collector perception, a rather low percentage of helmets were ever customized in an extreme way and of those even fewer survived to become collectible.  The price tags for these helmets makes it prohibitive for the average collector to afford to have enough in a single collection to be able to draw parallels of comparison and, because these were more often than not one off soldier customization, the only comparisons that can be made are relegated to judging the wear pattern or aging of the paint used to customize the helmet. For this reason, M-1 helmets customized with painted art are considered guilty until proven innocent by thy majority of the collecting community.

Collectors who engage in real or fake debate are divided, by the eccentricity of painted M-1 helmets, into two basic camps. The first camp refers to photographic evidence and books showing painted examples to find a parallel. If they do, they believe the helmet in question is real. The second camp says, “Yeah, but fakers have those same books and photos too” meaning, if the painted helmet in question draws a parallel to the book, it must be a forgery.

Collector's Note: This is the reason a forum post requesting members show pictures of their collection fall on deaf ears.

This situation is further complicated by online helmet forums which are often the location of choice for young collectors to post photographs and questions regarding authenticity. The complication comes in on two levels, desire and money. First and foremost, forum painted helmet gurus will have interest in acquiring the helmet and keeping both their potential out of pocket as well as market prices low. This means it is in their best interest to say the helmet has been faked. This is partially why painted helmets never seem to get a fair shake and why the guru, most adamant the helmet has authenticity issues, turns out to be the winning bidder.

The forgery of painted helmets is only done for money because the addition of fake insignia or names are not of a scope that they can alter our understanding of WWII or the role played by the M-1 helmet. There is no doubt that individuals that produce fake painted helmets are forging history as well as artifacts but, unlike Shapira’s Moabites, there is too much known about the M-1 helmet and the events of WWII for modern day forgers to alter our understanding of WWII as an event. This means the major impact of these forgeries is to the finances of individual collectors when they chose to buy named or decorated helmets.

Interestingly, forged items have both context and provenance and with time, the good ones will become collectible. In the world of archaeology, Shapira’s forged artifacts have attained value as relics of the events of his scheme. Examples are sought and valued in both museums and private collections.  Will there be a day when faked helmets by one of the more accomplished helmet forgers become valued by M-1 collectors?

 So until next time, I bid ye a fond


  • phillip

    when i was 1st getting into m1s after already collecting for 30 years, my reaction was “where were all these painted m1s back then?”. easy (green); they didnt exist yet.

  • Lee Caron

    The worst thing an experienced collector can do is allow a new collector to buy a fake painted helmet as this does nothing but discourage a beginner collector
    Very good article.

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