By Alex Gura
Though Dr. Arthur Tobias may be known as a master potter, a superb teacher, or even a great sketcher, he may be one of the preeminent scholars on a very different topic. With three articles on fraudulent engravings, 12 articles on restoration and a book soon to be finished, Tobias could very well be a leading researcher on Civil War firearms.
“The magazine publisher that publishes my work said to me ‘Well, you’re probably the world expert on this,’” Tobias said, “It’s one of those things that nobody had ever really bothered to look at very closely.”
Tobias started truly delving into this obscure field when he was examining a private collection of antique firearms and comparing it to the collection of a local museum of Western art.
“I had photos of a fake [revolver] next to the one that the museum had,” Tobias said, “And the engraving on the fake looked just like the one from the museum and I said, ‘Wait a minute. Either they’re both real, or they’re both fake.”
Tobias’ article on the forgery, which he published two years ago, released an avalanche of information about frauds in the firearm collecting industry.
“Basically the antique and art business is full of forgery,” Tobias said. “Turned out lots of people in the collectors’ world know about this but they just don’t talk about it.”
After writing that breakthrough article, Tobias started to get dozens of letters asking him to confirm the authenticity of old firearms.
“I had people who would write me letters and send pictures of their stuff, and go ‘This looks like what you said is phony in your article,’” he said. “Sort of like ‘Please tell me it’s not so,’ and I’d look at it and I’d say ‘Sorry, but you’re right. That’s one of the phony ones.’”
Becoming such a prominent scholar on the topic took a lot of research, as not much was written about it. He had to use roundabout ways to gather information on the production and engraving of the weapons, which was very close to the way money was produced in the 19th century. So close, in fact, that Tobias joined a numismatics society, a group for people who collect antique currencies, and got lots of information from there.
“You’d find expert books on Colt stuff and they’d say ‘Here’s how it’s done’, and they would be completely wrong,” Tobias said, “They would describe the process one way when it was really another.”
The topic of Tobias’s expertise, more specifically, is the process of creating Colt revolvers, which were heavily used during the American Civil War and are prized items by collectors interested in American military history. Their rarity and importance causes them to be of high demand and allows them to be sold for incredibly high prices, with the rarest example selling for more than $850,000 at auction.
“If you ever buy a historic piece,” Tobias said, “Buy it because you like it. There’s really no way to tell if it’s real or not.”
Though the forgeries have spread throughout nearly every area of collection, both private and professional, Tobias figured out that they were all started by a single man born in Indiana.
“Not too far away from where I was born,” Tobias said, with a chuckle.
“The guy who did this engraving forgery [from the museum] made old guns out of new stuff and sold them for big bucks,” Tobias said. “Once I published the first article I got e-mails and letters saying ‘I know who did it.’ And they all said the same guy.”
Tobias is planning to write a book on the subject, but not very soon.
“I’ll wait until [my son] William ’12 leaves for college,” he said, “Then I’ll have more time to work on it.”