As any fan of “Antiques Roadshow” knows, there are two moments that we all relish. One, when someone brings an item that they purchased at a yard sale for $1.50 to find that it’s worth $10,500. The stunned looks, the shaking, the “Are you kidding me?!” — all priceless.
The other is that moment when a person finds out that great-grandma’s vase, supposedly purchased from Tiffany, was actually purchased at Woolworth’s. The stunned looks, the shaking, the “Are you kidding me?!”— priceless.
A gentleman came into the museum in Old Town San Diego, proudly holding a belt buckle in his hand. He walked up to me and said quite confidently, “I have this brass buckle from Wells Fargo Express. Says ‘Made in England’ on it and has the royal seal. Can you tell me about it?”
I took a deep breath, knowing what I had to do.
I said, “Unfortunately, sir, it’s not an antique Wells Fargo belt buckle.”
You see, Wells Fargo & Co.’s Express never made nor commissioned belt buckles. Wells Fargo Bank did make belt buckles in the 1970s as gift items, but these are clearly marked as “commemorative.” Apparently someone in the UK, operating with the name “Tiffany’s of London” made tens of thousands of buckles in the late 1960s and early 1970s. For decades, hundreds of dealers have pawned them off as “authentic,” antique Wells Fargo Express belt buckles. One story has it that these buckles were worn by Wells Fargo agents.
The only problem is: There were never tens of thousands of agents.
Even today, a scan of eBay and other online auction services will produce many dealers still selling these buckles. Now to their credit, most don’t say that they are antique. However, someone without the knowledge could easily be tricked into believing that they are antiques. Sometimes the seller’s silence on the issue can be misleading.
In addition to belt buckles, you will also find brass Human Body tags online that were supposedly used by Wells Fargo Express to transport bodies for burial. While the express company may have provided this valuable service for families, they never used brass tags.
And there are many other Wells Fargo fakes out there — don’t be fooled!
My gentleman guest with the buckle was not happy with my answer — in fact, he was very indignant at first. So using my best diplomatic skills, I asked him to hold on for a moment because I had something he may want to see. I retrieved a copy of the book, Company Property of Wells Fargo & Co’s. Express 1852-1918 and a copy of an article written for “American Collector” magazine , exposing the belt buckle scam.
As he perused Company Property, he looked up at me and said, “No belt buckles.”
To which I replied in my most sympathetic voice, “Right, they never made them.” After a few minutes he left with a copy of the magazine article in hand, a little deflated but a great deal better off, I think, for the knowledge.