HANDCUFF COLLECTING-Why collect them?-How to spot fakes

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HANDCUFF COLLECTING-Why collect them?-How to spot fakes
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They are a part of the history of man! 

Ever since the beginning of mankind and during the growth of several civilizations, there was a need to keep prisoners and to enslave people. This was necessary to have an inexpensive labor force to form towns and villages and to advance agriculture. Measures had to be taken to insure against the loss of these people.  Preventing them from escape was of utmost importance.  Not only for the loss of labor but for the fact that they could seek help and cause an uprising against their captors.  Strips of animal hide tied to the wrists were probably the first form of restraints used to prevent these events from occurring.  Later, twisted fibers from vines or tree bark were used to manufacture rope. During the Bronze and Copper Age more durable and permanent forms of restraints evolved.  At this time, locks and keys were crafted which made the restraints removable and reusable. During the Iron Age, stronger restraints developed as locks became more intricate and quality raw material was available.  Slave transportation to the United States relied heavily on mass quantities of iron neck collars, handcuffs, and leg irons that were manufactured and imported during the time. The golden age of handcuffs appeared during the late 19th century and into the 1920's. Manufacturing reached a pinnacle and some companies were turning out quality handcuffs by the thousands. High quality steel was now being used and manufacturing costs were reduced as factories were now producing virtually all restraints. Union Hardware-Tower Handcuff Company became the "Ford" of handcuffs and Bean cuffs were the "Chevy". The quality of the products were at their peak during this time.  As World War ll  approached, many handcuff companies went out of business as material was difficult to obtain.  If a company was not manufacturing cuffs for the military, they were probably not going to stay in business much longer. After the war and as the end of the 20th century approached, mass production and cheaper production costs were necessary for handcuff companies to stay in business. Consequently, the fine craftsmanship diminished.
Hundreds of patents were issued to inventors of handcuffs, leg irons, thumbcuffs, neck collars, ball and chains, and countless other forms of restraints.  Designs were copied or changed so there are now hundreds of models and variations from all over the world.  They have become very desirable to collectors and prices for rare examples or those in exceptional condition command premium prices.  Collectors of restraints are interested in their history but are equally intrigued by who may have had the misfortune to be locked up in their particular pair of handcuffs.

   If only they could talk!


Cuff collecting goes hand in hand with a desire to learn more about history, world geography, law enforcement and criminal justice.  Not only is the hobby fun and interesting, but it can also be a great investment.  Unusual, rare or historically significant pairs of cuffs can double or triple their value in a relatively short amount of time.  Cuffs once owned by Houdini or worn by a notable criminal can bring in a substantial amount of money at auction.  If you are interested in starting or expanding a handcuff collection, eBay is a great place to find them.  Some of my best pieces in my 600 + collection were bought on eBay and I have made many international friends here.



Like any other shopping venue, please remember "Caveat Emptor--Buyer Beware!"  Unfortunately, even on eBay, there are fakes and frauds being sold at any given time.  If an available cuff is described as "Old West" or"Slave Shackles" and said to have been found in an old barn from the Deep South or the seller's Great Grandfather was a Sheriff in Dodge City and used to lock up someone like Billy the Kid, use caution.  Actual vintage cuffs are usually not sold with such story lines.  Most often, fakes are simply listed as fresh from an estate sale.  This allows the seller to later claim that he knew little about handcuffs, but was told that they were old and valuable. Another claim is that the cuff has been found and removed from a medieval dungeon.  There are restraints in private collections, mine included, that are from that time period, but the starting price is always more than $29.99.  Most of the reproductions being sold have a screw key type lock and more than likely, come with 2 keys.  Authentic antique cuffs share this same design but seldom come with any keys at all. The buyer should be considered fortunate to get even one key with the cuffs.  It is very rare that a good collectible cuff would come with both, so this is a tip-off.  (An interesting fact about this early screw key design is that Prison Guards would need to turn the threaded key several revolutions to remove or apply the cuffs to their prisoner. This is why guards were often called "Screws"). Almost always the cuffs will have numbers stamped into it and it will always match the numbers on the key.  The unscrupulous seller sometimes has amazing good luck.  Not only is he so fortunate to have found such a rare and valuable item to sell to you, he has found several of them to sell at the same time.  Another good indication that they are reproductions. 

A red flag should be raised when the seller sets up the auction where the "User ID (is) kept private".  This is done so that no one can learn who the poor bidder is and warn him or her about the costly mistake that is about to take place.  Unfortunately, warning a bidder is against ebay rules, even though it seems to be the right thing to do.  EBay is now blocking the bidder's ID so it has become even more difficult to caution them. 

Another tip off is the chain on any particular piece.  A nice turn-of-the-last-century item usually will have nice even links to make up the chain. Often it will be nickle plated or have a nice brown patina.  All of the links will be smooth and will be hard to tell where the link was closed and joined together.  The fakes will have either electrically welded links with a glob of molten metal at the joint or will have a shiny brass brazing on an otherwise rusty link. The joint will be very evident on each of the links.

A Fantasy Cuff is one that never really existed and is often sold as a rare cuff.  These usually have a name plate or a name stamped into it.  T.H. Porter--dealer in slaves, Alcatraz Prison, Folsom, Yuma Prison, Negro Woman or Child, Joliette and Andersonville Prison are among such markings that can be found on very real looking cuffs.  It is believed that none of these prisons ever stamped their names into actual cuffs, so if you are interested in buying an authentic cuff from any of these prisons, stay away from these fakes.  Restraints from jails can be marked with their name or initials but they are relatively rare. Please keep in mind that no prison used restraints are known to have their names stamped or have signs attached.  Currently, there are tire chains with brass tags glued onto them, stating that they are "Negro neck collars" from the slave trading days.  They have been bringing in good money.  It is bad enough that actual items were manufactured and used in the first place, but selling these fakes as authentic items from the era and making hugh profits from unsuspecting customers is also shameful.  These are all items that never really existed and you really do not want to spend your hard earned cash for them.  They are nice decorations or "wall hangers" but please do not spend more than $35 or so for them. If for some reason, you really need to have them, do not be in such a rush to buy them, for there will be more listed on eBay before long.  Do not think that the item that you are interested in will be sold without you being the highest bidder, because you will have plenty of other chances to find the exact same cuffs.  Most of these are made in India or Pakistan and are treated to look old.  They are imported around the world by the barrel full.  Quality antique cuffs generally will have a beautiful brown patina on them that is even and smooth to the touch.  It is very hard to duplicate what the elements and time have provided.  Fakes that have been aged to look old will be rough and partially rusty.  The finish can easily be rubbed off with a cloth towel.  It is claimed that the cuffs are soaked in vats of animal urine and other bodily wastes to get them to "age".  Another warning sign is quite literally just that.  The brass signs that are attached to fantasy cuffs are usually made of quality materials and the lettering is sharp and perfectly stamped.  Actual cuffs very rarely had signs affixed to them, and if they did, the signs would be fairly crude and riveted on to the item.  An expert in adhesives would know better than I, but to my best knowledge, glues that were available one to two hundred years ago would never have been good enough to allow these brass tags to adhere to the cuff in each and every known example.  The cost of the brass tags would also have been too expensive to manufacture and probably would have exceeded the actual cost of the item to which it was attached. 

Another area to use extreme caution in is the Ball and Chain.  Please keep in mind that 99% of those sold on eBay and even the fancy Auction Houses that use eBay for their online bidding are selling less than authentic Ball and Chains most of the time.  I do not believe that they sell fakes knowingly, but even they experience a difficult time authenticating these super rare items.  If you come across a Ball and Chain and it has some lettering on it, you can figure with great certainty that it too is a fake! I do have one from Lincoln County Nev. that is lettered, but it is an exception.  Most of the handcuff companies that did manufacture ball and chains normally would stamp only the weight of the ball onto it.

When looking to purchase a restraint or any interesting item on eBay, ask the seller where they got it and if they could send some clearer pictures if the ones supplied are fuzzy or otherwise obscure.  Some sellers may ignore you as they have carefully posed the item to hide any flaws or damaged sections.  Some may have a beautiful piece to sell but have terrible customer relations and simply will not respond to your questions.  Your purchase will be a gamble at this point, but I have been both burned and pleasantly surprised by the items sent to me by non-responsive sellers. Be weary when a cuff is guaranteed to be "turn of the century" more times than not, the seller is referring to the period of time following Dec 31, 1999

KUB Industries in Pakistan is currently manufacturing high quality reproduction and fantasy cuffs.  I hope to include pictures in another guide soon.  They sell for $50 on up.  They are nice enough that they may be worthy of keeping in a collection and may be collectible in their own right.

An Irony exists:  Take a look at the advertisements for handcuffs from other sellers on the upper right side of this article.  About 9 out of 10 times there will be reproduction cuffs being offered for sale.



                  Fake Brass Name Tag                                                      Close! --But not quite!

        Amazing glue still adheres 200 yrs later!                               Look for matching numbers.


             Fantasy Georgetown Plantation                                           Watch out for Old Style Cuffs

                Police Handcuffs for use on                                                    with New Style Chains!

                 "Negro Woman or Child"                                            Note the conical shaped lock tubes!

         These cuffs are probably 2 or 3 yrs. old!                        Real cuffs have evenly shaped lock tubes!



         Not so Real Medieval Dungeon Irons                              Real and Collectible Slave Leg Irons



                          Repro Irish 8's                                             "Rare" Handcuffs made from 2 Pipe Clamps      



              Fake Yuma Prison Ball & Chain                                     First US Made Cuff--Very Rare


Law enforcement personnel, locksmiths, magicians, old west-cowboy collectors, prison-jail collectors, war-military collectors, gunsmith-gun collectors, Houdini and other escape artist fans or performers are the usual candidates for maintaining a handcuff and restraint collection.  Handcuffs and other restraints cross over well into these other collections.  Other people from around the globe and in other professions also find cuff collecting interesting.   Many of these collectors are doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, electricians or work in many other professions and trades.  I find it very sad that people from some countries are not allowed to collect handcuffs.  Their governments has banned these items because citizens are not allowed to poses police or military items.  Some will allow antique handcuffs to be imported and collected, however.  The question these folks have is; if a high quality antique is allowed to be kept, what would the difference be if that cuff or a brand new cuff was used to lock someone up in a robbery?  They work equally well to restrain a victim.  The laws in some countries are frustrating as that example shows.  Those living in countries without the restrictions are fortunate to have the right to collect and I encourage people to do so. There are numerous resources out there to help you start a collection and steer you in the right direction.  Reference books on the subject appear on eBay quite regularly.  Before you buy or sell, please feel free to contact me for advice or for any other questions.  I usually know the answer, but more importantly, I know where to get the right answer if I do not have it.  Please visit my eBay "me" page for additional information and contact information.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If any part of this article was interesting or beneficial, please give it a YES vote below. It will allow the reviewer icon to continue to show up next to my eBay name.  I sure appreciate it and so will the future bidder if we can save him or her from making a costly mistake. Thank you.






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