"Tiffany" Belt Buckles - The Complete Story
In the 1960s and 70s there was massive scheme where thousands of fraudulent belt buckles were manufactured and imported into the United States, where they were bought by unsuspecting antique collectors. They infringed on the registered trademarks of companies like Coca Cola, Wells Fargo, American Express, Winchester, Ford, and their aged appearance led people to believe they originated from the late 1800s.
Many of the buckles
had intricate hallmarks from reputable manufacturers, including:
Tiffany & Company / Tiffany Studio, Deane & Adams, Gaylord Express / E. Gaylord, Anson Mills, and other company names.
The reality is that the belt buckles were manufactured in the 60s and 70s and fraudulently sold to dealers and collectors as "rare antiques". These belt buckles have been exposed numerous times in articles from Basically Buckles: The original buckle collector magazine, Reader's Digest, and other publications. But even after 50 years, these fakes continue to dupe collectors and sellers.
An Englishman, John Fairchild, was ultimately revealed as the source of the Tiffany buckles. Several companies filed lawsuits against the English manufacturer and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agency ultimately intervened in the matter. They impounded some import shipments of the buckles and prevented John Fairchild from entering the United States, but by then the Tiffany buckle craze had already taken hold. American companies began producing copies of the Tiffany belt buckles in varying styles. Some of the early copiers included Michael Richter, Daniel Baughman of Bergamot Brass Works, the Lewis Buckle Co, and MM Limited (now Great American Products).
Today, there are so many versions of the Tiffany designs that it is nearly impossible to know exactly who produced which belt buckle. There were multiple castings of buckles by John Fairchild, American-made copies of Fairchild's designs, and then 2nd and 3rd generation copies of the American-made buckles. The only thing that is certain is that none of these buckles were made by Tiffany Studios and none are older than the 1960s.
How It All Started
In the late 60s and early 70s, rare and unusual belt buckles began turning up in pawn shops, gun shows, and flea markets. On the front, the buckles were adorned with original artwork and names of household brands such as Coca Cola, American Express, and Wells Fargo. Frantic collectors were buying them up at prices as high as $200 in the mid-60s and early 70s—a hefty price tag equivalent to about $1,300 in today’s dollars (1970 to 2021 dollars). The origins of these buckles remained mysterious and suspicious.
A collector’s guidebook Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates, by Percy Seibert, began circulating among dealers and collectors in the early 70s.
This 90-page hardbound publication was illustrated with photographs of many of the belt buckles in question along with a discussion of historical context and other documentation, such as photographs of belt buckle casting molds. Unbeknownst to collectors, the entire book and its contents were an intricate lie, maliciously constructed to fool unsuspecting buyers. The guidebook’s author, publisher, and “historical information”, were all fabricated as part of an elaborate scheme to help sell fake belt buckles... of which, there were now tens of thousands in circulation. The books were circulated among antique collectors and pawn shops and helped to grow the demand for the buckles
J. Duncan Campbell's Investigation
The scheme behind the faked buckles began to unravel in the early 1970s when J. Duncan Campbell, an advisor to the Smithsonian Institute and expert in historical belt plates, purchased a copy of Tiffany & Gaylord Express & Exhibition Belt Plates. To his surprise, the book contained writing plagiarized from Campbell’s own works for the Smithsonian. He documented his findings in his own book in 1973, titled New Belt Buckles of the Old West.
Excerpt from New Belt Buckles of the Old West PLAGIARISM & THE NON-EXISTENT COPYRIGHT
After careful study of Percy Seibert’s book I made a decision to spend all the research time necessary to document the truth and expose much that is false and misleading in its content. Several reasons compelled me to annotate the text and shed some light on these new buckles, but one is of personal importance. In the book’s very first pages I was amazed to read sentences and paragraphs precisely as I had written them in the Smithsonian Bulletin 235 (American Military Insignia) which I co-authored with Edgar M. Howell… Next, I noticed a copyright date of 1950, using words I had not written until 1962. This was a surprise that proves the book must have been written some time after the Smithsonian Bulletin appeared in 1963.  New Belt Buckles of the Old West J. Duncan Campbell P. IX
Campbell meticulously studied Percy Seibert's book and explained how many of the Tiffany buckles had historical inaccuracies or impossibilities that showed they were fake. Campbell published an update to his investigation in Early American Life magazine, titled "The Great Belt Buckle Fraud" (1974). In the article, he described purchasing one of the fake buckles directly from a supplier in London, England called P. Supplies Co. His check was endorsed by none other than John R. Fairchild, Jr. He also obtained a catalog from the Deane & Adams company which noted it was a member of the Fairchild Organization.
Basically Buckles Magazine
Basically Buckles (previously Buckle Buddies) ran numerous articles on the Tiffany buckles throughout the 1980s. Readers and subscribers frequently mailed in letters to the editor asking about the origin of the Tiffany buckles they had acquired. Most issues featured a reply from collector and writer, Bob Bracken, softly breaking the bad news that the infamous Tiffany buckles were not authentic antiques.
Basically Buckles also ran an article written by a former dealer of the original Tiffany buckles, Michael Richter, whose firsthand experience led him to purchase them wholesale from the supplier in England. He ordered the buckles directly from John Fairchild by the hundreds, and then resold them to eager buyers in the U.S. The rumors surrounding the origins Tiffany buckles were wild and fantastic. There were claims that the buckles had been gathered up during scrap metal drives during WWI so that the brass could be melted down and used for bullet casings. The lucky buckles that had been allegedly "spared" were being offered up to collectors. Some of the buckles also had inscriptions claiming they had been cast from captured military cannons. The peculiar stories generated hype and urgency that fueled demand for the buckles. Dealers were rushed to place their orders before supplies ran out.
Reader's Digest also published an article titled "Scourge of the Smugglers", which discussed the Tiffany buckles. Soon after, American companies whose names were being used on the buckles filed lawsuits against Fairchild. When U.S. Customs intervened, Michael Richter's shipments were detained until he agreed to mark each one "Made in England" on the reverse side. Richter wrote:
"Even on my final shipment the Englishman [John Fairchild] never admitted that I was involved in a hoax. While I assumed that the Reader's Digest article would destroy any interest in these buckles, it only seemed to further enhance the desirability of the Tiffany buckles."
"Tiffany Revisited" by Michael Richter
Basically Buckles, September 1981
Copies of Copies
Even after the Tiffany buckles were no longer available from England, Richter and many others started making copies of the buckles. Daniel Baughman, the owner and artist behind prominent belt buckle manufacturer Bergamot Brass Works, met John Fairchild on a business trip to England in 1973. He too, was was convinced that the buckles had been recently produced and were, in fact, not relics of the 1800s. He suspected the buckles were oxidized or chemically treated to give an aged or antique appearance. Like Richter, Baughman copied many of the Fairchild designs and began producing his own buckles in Wisconsin in the early 70s.
Other companies including the Lewis Buckle Co and MM Limited (now Great American Products) also started out by producing copies of the Fairchild buckles before developing their own designs. To make matters even more complicated... later companies produced 2nd and 3rd generation copies of the American-made "Tiffany" designs. In the end, it became nearly impossible to know the origin of any one particular belt buckle.
The hype and mystery surrounding the Tiffany buckle gave birth to a legitimate industry, but unsuspecting collectors continue to be fooled by the scheme which started more than 40 years ago. It was rumored that John Fairchild gave his belt buckle business over to his sister and her husband who started produced legitimate belt buckles, much like the competing companies they had inspired in the United States.
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About the Author:
Brock Lane has an MS in Applied economics and operates multiple shops on Etsy, eBay, and Shopify. He maintains an inventory of over 10,000 rare and unique belt buckles, leather belts, and other goods. He leverages his sales history and professional background to write about trends in online retail marketplaces. Brock is an eBay affiliate and earns commission from linked products & shops.
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