CAST IRON AND METAL BANKS - Antique, Vintage, and Collectible Bank Values
Antique cast iron banks are one of the most popular of all American collectible items. Most of these banks are rare and they are in great demand by collectors. Made between the 1860s and 1930s, vintage cast iron banks can be either mechanical banks or still banks. Mechanical banks have parts that move while still banks donít. Most of the vintage mechanical banks were made between 1928 and the start of WWII.
New collectors should use extreme caution when buying antique cast iron banks. Both still and mechanical bank reproductions abound and some are still being made. Reproductions do not have the same detail and may be slightly smaller. No paint or poor paint jobs and a lighter weight are some of the ways to spot a reproduction. New collectors should do their homework and learn how to spot reproductions. There are books and other valuable resources for this information. It should be mentioned that some of the reproductions are also collectible and worth money, but they are not as valuable as the originals.
How Can You Tell if a Bank is a Reproduction?
Since the 1970's companies who specialize in the collectibles market have been heavily reproducing mechanical banks and toys created from molds taken from old and authentic pieces. These types of goods are generally cheaply made and exported from countries like India, China and Mexico. Because the method of manufacture is primarily intended to churn out a great number of items inexpensively and quickly, rather than each piece being made by specialized craftsmen focused on quality, it is fairly easy to differentiate unmarked reproduction items from authentic cast iron pieces if you are aware of the features and details to look for.
First, look carefully at the mold marks. It's called "cast iron" because it's cast in a mold - that is, it's poured into a mold and allowed to harden. Reproductions of vintage cast iron toys/banks will be less detailed than their original counterpart, and the pieces often don't fit together well. Look at how well the separate pieces of cast iron fit together. The seams between pieces on most early cast iron toys are so tight they almost disappear. On the new fakes, there are gaps so large you can slip a piece of cardboard through them. Obvious misalignment of major sections at joints, warped castings, or incomplete castings, should alert you that the item is not of the quality one would find in a truly old piece.
Look for coarse granular surfaces. In early cast iron, the molds were formed from very fine sand. That texture can still be seen or felt on the pieces but it is very fine and uniform. Old cast iron is incredibly smooth to the touch, almost silky; it will never be rough or grainy. Antique pieces were cast in extremely fine sand, which rendered crisp detail. On newer mass-produced pieces you will find areas of very coarse surface, sometimes with substantial grainy pieces stuck to the surface. The makers of cast iron reproductions have always used coarse sand. Not only does this result in lost details, but also a grainy or pebbled surface is usually the result. If you aren't sure how to identify this type of surface visually, then don't try. Close your eyes and let your fingers tell you the age of an item.
Any excess flash should be a giveaway, too. Flash is a thin edging of excess metal that stands proud along the edges of seams or design elements - inside the spokes of a wheel or the inside edges on the coin slot of a bank. Old pieces were always well finished along all edges, even inside the crevices of open details like scroll work. Very little, to no flashing, will be present on an old piece. Basically, if the casting looks crude on a piece, you should be suspicious of the item. If flashing isn't obvious but rough grinding marks are, this is also an indication of a newer make. Modern power tools like electric grinders didn't exist in 1890. Any finishing marks should be near to invisible if the piece is truly old.
Study the paint. Paint is one of the most important indicators. It's difficult (but not impossible) to fake the look of old paint. On old pieces the paint is thicker, the color is brighter, the surface is shiny and very hard. Antique cast iron will have fine painting details. The paint and trim on the originals were applied expertly; take note especially of the faces on figural pieces. Old, original paint generally appears to be thickly applied and its surface will often have a hard, well-cured look. Newer pieces are usually mechanically spray painted with a thin layer of paint, although not always. Sometimes a piece is left completely bare or will have been stripped of the factory applied paint in order to make it look 'aged'. Take the bolts out and look at the insides of the piece. If it's been spray painted you'll find evidence of the paint along the inner edges.
Beware, too, of fake 'patina' that may have been wiped on to dull the over-bright look of new paint. Some fakers will go so far as to actually bake items in an oven to quickly age new paint surfaces; or they will bury a cast iron item briefly to achieve the same effect.
Look at the bolts holding the piece together. On an old piece the bolts will be so flush to the surface that you almost don't see them. On a new piece, they will often stick out from the surface. Often their heads will not be parallel to the surface because they had to be forced into place to hold together uneven parts. If you find Phillips head screws - look no further. Old pieces were never held together with modern Phillip's head screws, which were not commercially manufactured until about 1940. If you see a Phillip's head screw under supposedly original paint, then the item is without doubt a reproduction. Phillips head screws will never be found in an antique piece from the late 1800's. Fakers, of course, know that collectors have gotten wise to this oversight and many newer cast iron fakes and reproductions are now produced with slotted screws that more closely resemble those that would be found in authentic pieces.
Dings or scrapes to surfaces to suggest wear can easily be artificially produced on a new item. Use common sense and ask yourself, where on an authentic piece would one expect to find wear if the item had been used or played with. If you can see wear in inappropriate areas of a piece, but a pristine surface in the places where wear would logically be expected, you almost certainly are looking at a fake.
Quite a few foundries embossed their production with a mark, name or patent number. Hubley was a company noted for cast iron toys and decorative items like doorstops that frequently had their name incorporated in the mold. However, since some reproductions are produced from molds made by using an original piece, a maker's name isn't always proof that an item is authentic. Reproductions and fantasy items currently in production today are rarely marked with anything more than a paper label, which soon disappears. 'Taiwan' is a mark sometimes found on the base of some reproduction mechanical banks made from the 1970's through the 1980's. This is not the mark of a turn of the century American manufacturer.
Look for features that made cast iron toys popular way back then. An antique cast iron buggy toy might have been outfitted with many extras, like reins and harness on the horse, people for the seats and detachable lamps. Intended as toys to be played with, these should roll very smoothly. Reproductions may include a few add-ons like a driver or some barrels for the back of a wagon, but they usually will lack very small pieces that would be deemed a child hazard by todayís standards. Invariably, modern cast iron toys and banks are rather clunky in motion, too, though they may function.
Remember that original late 1800's and early 1900's pieces were hand cast, finished, and assembled by craftsmen who took pride in their work. Cast iron toys and banks were often expensive so their makers took great care to ensure that their product looked good enough to be worth the price they would be asking.
Since cast iron banks are being widely reproduced it is advisable to research the subject thoroughly prior to making a purchase. This will give you the necessary information to purchase wisely.