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Useful hints on detecting fake photos

Universal remedy that could be safely used to detect fake photo hardly exists, but following several recommendations set forth below might prevent disappointment that inevitably accompanies purchase of forgeries. Nevertheless, a wealth of knowledge seems not to be useful enough without experience as only years of collecting and studying of thousands of photos bring wisdom. As Third Reich-era photographs are by far the most liquid and popular objects of WWII paper memorabilia, beginners and sometimes even experienced collectors of those items are the most common targets for international crooks. Thus hints listed below are complied to help fellow collectors not to take the bait.

Fake WWI-era postcard-sized photos are quite uncommon save portraits with interesting medal bars and decorations. Anyway those are quite easy to be identified in view of specific century-old print quality, photo paper and reverse details.   

1. Black light detection results. The most popular and time-proved method of detecting fakes is using a portable black light to inspect suspicious photos. Black light device that produces long wave ultra violet makes most post-war paper objects glowing with bright blue fluorescence that our eyes can easily see. Thus such bright reflection is a sign of a modern forgery or reproduction, or at least of a post-war copy. Those who want to be on a safe side even having received positive result, i.e. no glowing, might want to use a sharp razor to make a punctual cut at the edge of a photo and detect “inner space” with an UV device. It happens sometimes that this operation does reveal “good quality fakes” that have a special chemical finish to deceive black light test. Glowing that we might observe is caused by specific synthetic whiteners that are used in production of photo paper since 1950s. It’s worth mentioning here as well that Soviet photo paper manufactured until the end of 50s never glows as it doesn’t contain those whiteners!

2. Colour of a photo. Unnatural yellow or brown shades that are claimed to be “traces of age” might indicate usage of artificial colouring agents. Thus, notorious “photos from Special Funds” frequently have icteric shade. Fraudsters make modern prints production look old by applying manganese or tea solution, placing photos on direct sunlight, etc.

3. Glossy finish of a photo. Glossy period photos should look a bit dull, and not too bright due to their age. Deposition partitioning must be smooth and solid, without foreign inclusions or dead spots of finish.

4. Contrast of a photo. Fakes’ visibility is always high due to the loss of details in halftones during reprint. Specific contrast of “photos from Special Funds” is a characteristic feature of such fakes.

5. Sharpness of a photo. As a rule, examination of a fake with hand magnifier can detect unevenness in photo sharpness. Central part of a print would be more sharp while details along the edges would be blurry.

6. Absence of photo paper logotype. This indicator is quite relative and should not be regarded as a guaranteed proof of a forged photo. The vast majority of authentic pre-war and wartime German postcard-sized photos and snapshots do bear logo of paper manufacturer, but a lot of undoubted originals lack appropriate marks on their reverses. Anyway you should bear in mind that fraudsters do not stand apart from technological progress and any “correct logo” might be added to a backside of a fake by hook or by crook, the easiest way being printing on a laser or an inkjet printer.

7. Correspondence of paper manufacturer’s logo to the period a photo was taken or printed. Most post-war German manufacturers had logotypes that differed from their Third Reich-era products, so you have to be very cautious while examining their trademarks on backsides of photographs. Nevertheless don’t forget that certain photos might have been printed from original negatives after 1945, and in such a contingency wartime images may appear on post-war photo paper.

8. Side trimming of a photo. Fancy trimming is not an outright authenticity guarantee as such an embellishment can easily be done nowadays using period German scissors that survived the war in quantity. Pre-war method of side trimming is not too sophisticated and may be mastered easily. It is very important to distinguish between pre-war and wartime German trimming and post-war Soviet trimming. As a rule the former is characterized by smooth edges while the latter by more sharp.

9. Stamp of “Special Funds” on reverse of a photo. This type of stamp that might be accompanied by some additional stamps like “Struck off the register”, “Cancelled”, etc. is a hundred-per-cent indication of a fake. Such pieces were churned out extensively in the beginning of 1990s in Russia and Ukraine. Authentic photos and good quality prints from historical books were used as specimens. Prints were subsequently made looking old by applying various artificial solutions. Despite being classic example of modern-day forgery, such photos are still widely available at the international militaria market including various Internet auctions and online shops. Stamp bearing inscription “Special Funds of USSR Home Ministry” is the most widespread example being followed by “Special Archives of KGB of Ukraine”, “GDR Archive in Potsdam” and some others.

10. Pay attention to a description of photograph by a seller when making purchase at online shops or auctions. Trustworthy dealers always mark suspicious items as “Reprint”, “Reproduction”, “Copy”, etc.