Should you have an ivory treasure in your possession, but a nagging little voice in your mind suggesting otherwise, you may (at your own risk) want to try this test that will make a curator cringe: Take a pin, hold it securely in a pair of pliers. Heat the end of the pin over a flame until red hot. Touch the point of the pin to a discretely hidden part of the ivory. If nothing happens, it is (in fact) ivory. If it starts smoking, melting, giving off fumes (don't breath them); or any reaction at all, it is NOT ivory.
"With the catching, ends the thrill of the chase"
At some point you will have regrets. Regrets over perhaps paying too much, selling, or completely missing out on an item. It is all part of the collecting intrigue that (on occasion) may make you feel uncomfortably unique. However, you can rest assured that you are not. You are in plenty of good company! If you don't get bruised once in a while, you aren't playing hard enough! The trick is not to get discouraged and give up. Sometime ago, I won a beautiful high grade Horstmann M1850 non-regulation (Peterson 75) sword. It had a superbly engraved, extravagant silver Horstmann grip with eagle under an "E Pluribus Unum" banner. It was altogether magnificent... the finest one I have ever seen. Clauberg, gold-washed damascene blade with fine etching, silvered guard with a stunning German silver scabbard and embellished, gold gilded, brass mounts. I was ecstatic... right up to the point I learned of the gratuitous and erroneous "commemorative" presentation on it. My thought was to keep the sword and have the inscription removed, however, I then found another beautiful silver-gripped High Grade Horstmann Presentation sword on the internet. Not only was it magnificent, but it was also featured in John Thillman's book Civil War Army Swords. To top it off, the listing price was less than what I was paying for the P75! What a deal! The auctioneer had a backup Buyer waiting to snatch up the P75; but as time was of the essence, I let it go. I then contacted the dealer advertising the presentation sword. I was informed that the price on the website was, in actuality, an error. In reality, the price was $5,000 more than stated on the web site! I was sick to my stomach and more than a little upset! I had lost both swords. I have my suspicions of where that P75 came to rest. Perhaps one day I may have the opportunity to acquire it back, but I doubt it will be near the original price I would have paid for it!
Shark Skin (Top). Note the diamond shaped nodules. Ray skin will have rounded nodules and was used primarily on U.S. Navy swords. Shark skin is found most commonly on U.S. Army swords. The choice of using fish skin (AKA Shagreen) was a practical one, as it allowed for better grip. Modern synthetic material imitating these skins have been made, so pay attention to the grip. Old skin may show signs of dry aging and shrinkage over the century revealing a wider gap along the seam (although this is not always the case).
Ray Skin (Bottom). Note the rounded nodules as well as the difference in color. Color is not always a determining factor depending on wear, weather and work. however, lighter coloring may signify Ray skin.
In my opinion, the internet has been the single greatest factor responsible for opening the collector's access to hard-to-find artifacts. It brings a global market to your fingertips. Combined with the expanded choice, ease of online payments, and modernized shipping, it can make for a great collecting experience. That said, there are always pitfalls and weaknesses associated with most forms of purchasing. Extra "due diligence" should be applied in certain areas as one is not able to physically inspect the item:
Below is a falsified presentation applied with the intention of deceiving the buyer. This is a tubular steel scabbard. It has no soldered seam. Therefore, it was not made during the Civil War period.
Yes. Note the solder line where the sheet steel scabbard was joined. If there is no solder line, the scabbard is from post Civil War period.
Like all business entities, there are good ones and bad ones. This section will cover only what my personal opinions are regarding auctions.
Auction houses are trying to sell consigned items for the highest possible price. After all, this is how they earn their living. However, as with any industry, people find ways to manipulate outcomes in their favor. An unavoidable conflict of interest exists between the auction house, the consignor (seller) and the buyer. Auctions can be prone to subtle manipulation and a lack of ethical integrity. Be wary of weapon "experts." There are not many in the realm of swords. As firearms are usually the main focus of an arms auction, the experts are usually experts in that field. There are not too many who are knowledgeable on swords.
There is a tendency for auction houses to write Lot Descriptions as apparent statement of fact, rather than statement of opinion. The descriptions may allude to items being authentic or may imply certain attributes. However, do not be surprised if the auction house shrinks from accountability if a discrepancy should arise. There are pages of disclaimers that you signed (but did not fully read) in order to participate in the auction. Somewhere in the miniscule font, it will state that all descriptions are "opinion," and they guarantee nothing about the items that their professional "experts" evaluated. So, read the descriptions carefully, and learn to "read between the lines!"
Example 1: A sword listed/described in the auction catalog as having a "commemorative inscription" might be translated to: "some deceitful, unethical person took an original, non-presentation scabbard, and had it inscribed to some arbitrary soldier he looked up (they are partial to Medal of Honor winners). Depending on the individual and the presentation, this might add thousands of dollars to the price. The result: you end up with an original, yet unexceptional sword that was never near the person to whom it was presented. This is where research is key. A few years ago, I saw a presentation sword that caught my eye. The sword was presented to a colonel. However on researching the officer, I found that the presentation was dated exactly one year before he had ever received a commission to that rank.
Example 2: A sword that is listed as being in the "style of a Civil War M1850 Staff & Field Officer;s sword" could be translated to: this sword is likely a reproduction or composite sword assembled to look like an M1850 Staff & Field Officer's sword. It was, in all probability, never near the Civil War, let alone carried by a soldier (at least for the most part).
Example 3: You ask the auctioneer weapons expert: "Is this sword original period?" Answer: "Well, it looks old." Translation: "I don't know anything about swords, or I am intentionally skirting the question". The sword may be artificially aged or majorly restored. It is likely not (in whole, or in part) original.
Example 4: I had this experience with an 1849 Pocket Colt (which turned out to be a .36 caliber 1862 Navy Pocket Colt). The description read blah, blah, blah, "...works well." In actuality, the pistol miss-cycled on the fifth cylinder. When asked, the auctioneer pointed out that "works well", did not mean "works perfectly," but for a 150 year old Colt it "works well". This is a true statement! Note: The auctioneer elected not to disclose the known fault. He also did not lie, but was not exactly ethical in disclosing a known fact that would clearly lower the value in the eyes of a buyer. Why? Easy! To get a higher sale price, leading to a higher commission on the seller's premium and the buyer's premium.
Example 5: (Just taken out of an auction catalog January 2014) "Grip may have been redone." Translation: "I know nothing about swords; or I am being intentionally vague as to leave some doubt in the reader's mind." An amateur with a minor degree of experience could tell this grip is comprised from incorrect, replacement material for the model sword (let alone an auction house, military "weapons expert" at a military weapons auction). I happen to know this sword, having seen it floated around the various dealer tables over a number of years. The grip is a modern replacement.
The top sword blade is both, the bottom is original. In this case, a real reproduction blade has been stripped and artificially aged in an attempt to falsify originality for financial gain. The intent is to deceive. Note (in orange box) that the "E" is missing from in front of the "P" in "Pluribus." I have been told this may have been done on some reproduction blades to skirt a legal infringement. Also, compare the two eagle etchings. The top picture exhibits a poor "fuzzy" quality of etching. This is indicative of reproduction quality, as opposed to the better quality etching and finer detail exhibited on the authentic blade below (Click far right photos to enlarge).
Bone: If you can see pinprick dark spots, it is bone. These discolored spots remain as tell-tale evidence as to where vessels once ran through the bone. Ivory does not have these bio-flecks.
Some sword grips look like ivory on the out-facing side. This would appear to have been an intentional practice. The less appealing side of the bone, or that showing more vessel tracts, was placed on the inside facing the body.
Swords are simple weapons. Unlike firearms, there are no moving parts (except for a few models).
Original antique swords are a finite commodity. No more (originals) can ever be made. The companies that made them have themselves long been relegated to the shelves of history. As long as there are collectors and people who appreciate history, there will be a market. That is not to say it will always be a smooth market. As we know, markets are cyclical, and all markets fluctuate with inherent risk. However, with the progression of time, it is a mathematical certainty that fewer original swords will continue to survive. Also, with an exponentially expanding population (combined with declining currency values) it would seem logical that demand and value should increase over time.
The advent of the internet has been a major factor in the boosting of collecting interest. It is the ideal place to expose sparsely scattered swords to the world for education or trade. The internet has given every person with a computer the ability to enter the field of sword collecting. No longer is it necessary to attend auctions in person, faraway shows, or travel miles to remote dealers. Everything is at your fingertips, and delivery is to your door step.
Antique swords are personal investments where one may gain infinite satisfaction from researching, preserving, and displaying them. It is incredible to think that one might possess a sword that may have been carried in war more than a century ago; even clasped by a soldier mortally wounded in a great battle that helped define a country. Or, you can look at your bank statement and pie charts.
Much of the pleasure of collecting is derived from the "thrill of the hunt," not from the actual purchase.
There are far fewer swords than firearms, which (to me) makes them more desirable (although I am also partial to old Colt pistols).
Relatively few swords come up for auction at any one time. This means one does not get constantly overwhelmed. Going through auction catalogs can require more time and research than a part-time hobbyist generally has at his/her disposal. At any one arms auction, there may be a thousand items; hundreds of Colts, Remingtons, Winchesters, etc. Usually, there will only be a handful of swords sprinkled throughout, making research and focus far easier.
You can get started in sword collecting with not much money down. Depending on the sword, one can enter collecting with as little as $100, or more than $100,000.
There are numerous great books available for reference. (Please see the Introduction for a list.)
The models, periods, and styles of swords are broad, allowing many avenues of collection. Personally, I would focus on one... to start.
Swords are impressive and command attention wherever they are displayed.
There are friendships to be made and community to be found amongst those bound by the bonds of common historical interests.
If you enjoy researching presentation swords and Civil War soldier history, this site will give you a big bang for your buck: CivilWarData.com
These tips are based on my personal experiences; others' experiences may be different.