by Byron A. Johnson, Director
“Never, never buy first and research later.”
Collecting is the new “Wild West”
As of this writing EBay has more than 250 “Texas Ranger” badges, patches and related items listed for sale. The vast majority are replicas, fantasy items, or outright fakes. Faking and forgery have become advanced, and 19th and early 20th century Texas Ranger artifacts can command high prices. If you want to swim with the sharks, it is important to assure the integrity of the artifact and verify its alleged Texas Ranger provenance.
Enthusiasts and collectors would naturally like to own a piece of the Texas Ranger legend. Every year we receive dozens of questions about alleged Texas Ranger artifacts offered at auctions, gun shows and through the internet. The sad fact is that novice collectors spend tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each year on fake Texas Ranger badges and firearms with false or unverifiable Ranger provenance (ownership). Unscrupulous sellers rely on the same principals they have for thousands of years—buying in haste and failing to do research. They entice buyers with
- deceptively worded or vague statements
- questionable affidavits and worthless letters of authenticity
- opinions from unrecognized or unnamed “experts”
- ticking online auction clocks
After the sale they hide behind “small print” sales and auction disclaimers, internet pseudonyms, email addresses, and PO Boxes.
Unfortunately the problem is rampant in the world of collecting. Federal prosecutors estimate that 60% to 90% of all sports memorabilia and autographs on the market are fraudulent. Sorry, Babe Ruth never saw that bat, and Michael Jordan never signed that basketball.
Determining the Authenticity of Texas Ranger Artifacts
Authenticating Texas Ranger artifacts is a complex process and must be grounded in proof—not hope or feelings that an item is “right.” The two elements are:
(a) detailed information about the physical artifact, and
(b) proof of “provenance” — its documentable history and its chain-of-possession from the Texas Ranger to the present.
The Truth About Historic Texas Ranger Equipment
Until 1935 most Texas Rangers provided their own firearms and equipment. Their personal possessions and gear were not inventoried by the State. The scarcity of State records and standard equipment throughout most of Texas Ranger history has been a bonanza for fraudsters.
Firearms: Records of State-issued firearms are exceedingly rare. They have never been compiled and only rarely contain specific information—such as serial numbers— and the names of Rangers to whom they were issued. Fanciful histories of ownership have been attached to firearms along with bogus inscriptions, property tags and even altered serial numbers.
Badges: The first use of badges can be traced to the 1870s and 1880s. Until 1935 (when the Texas Department of Public Safety was created) most Texas Rangers did NOT wear badges. The few that had them received them as gifts for service or ordered them from jewelers, gunsmiths, or police supply companies. This lack of standardization is an open door for persons perpetuating fraud.
Fake badges have been made and sold since the 1940s, some with the names of famous Rangers inscribed on them. They were of many designs and sizes and could be made of any metal.
So how do museums approach authentication? ‘Hard’ evidence and common sense are the primary components.
Criteria for Authentication
√ Integrity of the artifact:
- Is the item a known fake, replica, or fantasy item? Is it “made up” from parts or otherwise altered?
This can be determined by research, a qualified appraiser, or museum professional with established credentials in the category of item. Commercial appraisers will charge fees for research and written opinions.
- Is the item from the time the Texas Ranger was in service?
A pistol made in 1895 and owned by a former Ranger could not have been used during his Texas Ranger service in 1877. In the 1920s-1940s some elderly Rangers are known to have worn replica badges made for reunions and social events. Originally, they never wore badges.
Check the manufacture date on firearms. Some serial numbers records for Colt and Winchester firearms are available over the internet. Others are available for fees from Colt’s Manufacturing Company or the Winchester Collection at the Cody Firearms Museum. The Smith and Wesson Collectors Association has a similar service.
Dating hand-crafted items such as saddles, tack clothing is approximate. They can still be useful, but are not exact markers.
- Is the type or model of artifact known to have been used by the Texas Rangers—or a specific Texas Ranger—at the time claimed?
The common firearms and equipment used by Texas Rangers during specific periods are known. Biographies of specific Rangers and histories of specific companies may include information about what types of firearms and gear they used. While this is not proof of use, it can help rule out some items.
Unusual items were carried and have been verified; Capt. Dan Roberts is known to have carried a model 1900 Luger pistol. A Ranger who served in WWII brought back a German Schmeisser submachine gun and carried it as a backup weapon for years.
Beware of any of markings, inscriptions and presentation tags stating “Texas Rangers” or the names of Rangers. Some can be verified, but many are fraudulent. Beware of old paper or metal “museum tags” accompanying items or varnished to them. Fakes are common; an old “museum tag” is NOT an assurance of authenticity.
- In the case of modern Ranger-owned firearms, is the item a primary or “carry” weapon?
Primary Sidearms: The most historically significant of Texas Ranger firearms are their primary sidearms and rifles. Their survival may depend upon the arms they carry on a daily basis and they often form an attachment. Frank Hamer called his single-action Colt pistol “Old Lucky” using it long after it was obsolete.
Some of these are sold or given away, but many remain with the families as treasured heirlooms. Some Rangers have had more than one commonly carried sidearm. Some of these have been given as gifts to others or donated to charity.
“Barbecue Guns”: Next in historical importance are “Barbecue guns” worn on special occasions that are finely engraved plated and inlayed. They are are highly personal, providing insight into the tastes and interests of the Ranger.
Presentation Firearms: For more than a century firearms have been presented to Texas Rangers as gifts and mementoes of service. Today the majority are proudly displayed and rarely fired. Some of these find their way onto the market after the death of the Ranger, or go through multiple hands when they are, in-turn, given as gifts to others or donated to charity.
“Charity Carry” Firearms: Some modern Texas Rangers have briefly carried pistols to aid charities; they auction them off to raise funds as for worthwhile causes. So called “charity carry” may have been briefly carried on duty but never fired. They were in the possession of a Texas Ranger for a time; however, they do not have the historical significance of primary sidearms or personal barbecue guns.
√ Ranger Service:
- Was the individual in question actually a Texas Ranger? Do his known movements match the alleged history of the item?
The Armstrong Texas Ranger Research Center has a mail service that, for a small fee, will determine whether records are known proving Texas Ranger service. Please see the Tobin and Anne Armstrong Texas Ranger Research Center section of this site for details.
- Is there specific, verifiable proof of ownership by a specific Texas Ranger ?
First-hand Affidavits: An affidavit is a statement attesting to use or ownership and signed and dated by the Texas Ranger or a reputable contemporary witness. They are often notarized or witnessed. These are NOT the same as a Letter of Authenticity.
Such affidavits should contain an original signature, date and a detailed description of the item and its serial number if the item is a firearm.
Fake affidavits do exist, allegedly signed by Rangers after their deaths. Dead men don’t sign statements. Signatures can sometimes be compared with those in archives such as the Armstrong Texas Ranger Research Center. If an affidavits was notarized the authenticity of the notary can be researched.
Living Texas Rangers who provided affidavits can sometimes be contacted to verify their use or ownership.
Second-hand affidavits: These are statements provided by relatives, descendants, associates or friends of the Texas Ranger. These should be viewed with skepticism that increases with the distance in time separating the person from the Texas Ranger. A second hand affidavit that cannot be researched (all the parties are dead or are grandchildren depending upon generations of hearsay) is worthless unless there is additional hard documentation.
Letters of Authenticity: The “Letter of Authenticity” has become a staple in the field of collecting. It is a misunderstood and generally worthless document. Often looking like a diploma or award intended for display, it is not executed by the seller or someone in their employ.
Letters of Authenticity are used in place of a warranties, affidavits and documentation. They usually contain no detailed documentation, guarantees or protection. Worse yet, they can contain disclaimers.
The following example appears on the internet and is as an example used with sports memorabilia:
The item that accompanies this letter has been analyzed and documented by ________ . Based on their findings, it has been verified that this was the ______ that _______used to __________..
It has been recorded in _____________,.
This letter is to accompany this item wherever it goes, and is to be included on any sale of this item to future owners.
NOTE* This letter has been written in good faith by the ________. We are not responsible for any financial damage this letter may cause.
Impressive, but worthless. It is not an authenticated affidavit; it does not specifically cite supportive research and it is not a warranty. It is a disclaimer and waiver of liability protecting the seller!
In place of a letter of authenticity, require specific documentation and research and a warranty of sale specifying right-of-return.
Opinion: A seller may quote or present the written opinion of an “expert.” Opinions should not be considered only after determining (a) the credentials and qualifications of the person providing the opinion; and (b) should explicitly state the verifiable facts on which the opinion is based.
√ Chain of Possession:
(a) Is there an unbroken chain of possession from the Ranger to the present?
Trial evidence must have an unbroken “chain of custody” from the alleged crime to the courtroom. So too, if an item can be documented as having been in the family of a known Ranger for 150 years, and aligns with the Ranger’s service, it is a major point in favor of authentication.
If an item “disappears” for decades with whereabouts unknown, or is suddenly discovered, it may be impossible to conclusively prove its ownership or use by a Texas Ranger.
Rules to Collect By . . .
- Learn: Your best defense against fraud is to educate yourself and never spend hard cash in haste: learn about the type of antique (firearm, badge, knife, etc.) and thoroughly research any Ranger purportedly associated with it before buying. Visit museums, talk with staff, look at historic photos, read books and become a scholar.
- Carefully examine and research all documentation before buying: Reputable auctioneers or dealers will back up statements of ownership, identification, condition and degree of originality with verifiable documentation. Statements like “attributed to,” “experts believe,” or “it is believed” are worthless without hard, supporting documentation. If there is none, walk away.
- Obtain a Written Guarantee and Right of Return: Insist that the seller provide a written and signed description of the item and a guarantee of authenticity with a right of return–at the buyer’s discretion–for a reasonable period. If they balk, walk away.
- Verify the seller’s contact information: Does the seller have a physical address and not just a PO Box, mail drop? Is their phone number a working number? This is frequently an issue with purchases made at gun shows and in online sales. Unscrupulous dealers/sellers hide behind anonymous user names, mail boxes, email accounts and questionable phone numbers.
- Always escrow payments for any collectibles you buy online to assure you receive them: Reputable dealers and auction houses work with third party escrow services to assure they receive their funds and you receive your purchases.
- “Affidavits” and Letters of Authenticity: As described above, thoroughly research all affidavits to assure they are genuine. Walk away from photocopied or unsigned/undated affidavits when an original does not exist. Third-party affidavits are generally of little value; statements that “my grandmother told me that Ranger Smith wore a badge just like this, so it must be his” are worthless.
- Review the credentials of “experts” presented by the seller or auctioneer. Their opinions and credentials should be questioned if they are “conveniently” available at auctions and gun shows, and have a relationship with the seller. Expert opinion is of no value unless backed by evidence and documentation. “Feelings” that the item is “right” are worthless.
- Never attempt to verify integrity of the artifact or provenance at the last minute. In most cases this is impossible. If you do, demand a written right of return—which will usually not be available from the seller or auction house.
Will a Museum Authenticate or Appraise?
If time permits, professional museum staff members with training and experience in the type of artifact in question are often willing to examine items. They will share their observations and knowledge and suggest other sources and authorities. This is to help you make your own informed decision.
Reputable museums will not authenticate, appraise or advise you on whether to purchase an item for reasons of liability. Staff members are generally forbidden to collect, buy or sell the same material their museum collects, nor are they allowed to serve as consultants for collectors.