My home province of Ontario is a jurisdiction which has an interesting history of license plate manufacture, especially the early years. Ontario made its plates out of leather, rubber, porcelain, tin, and flat steel before finally going with the more conventional embossed route in the 1920s. These various types all have their own unique aspects. Unfortunately, in this day and age, fakes have slipped into the pool. Whatever the word people use… “replica,” “reproduction,” “placeholder,” “approximation,” or “facsimile,” they are all synonymous with the word “fake”. Some of the fakes out there can be very deceiving.
Over the past couple of years, an eBay seller from Thailand has been selling fake Ontario tin plates, dated between 1912 and 1916. They’re posted with a low price of around $50 US. I’m not going to fork over that kind of money to study one, but they’re starting to appear in flea markets here, and I recently had the chance to study one up close.
I spotted this fake plate, number 124, at an antique show. The detail in the coat-of-arms and the numeral typography is spot-on. I consider myself to be somewhat of a typography nerd, and when the fonts don’t match, it sticks out like a sore thumb. But the numbers on this fake are exactly the same size, shape and thickness as the real thing (number 5692, from my collection). The fakes are surely done with a silkscreen.
The face of the plate has been done in a distressed style to approximate the typical staining that you’d see on the white background, and the numbers have been done in an off-black to approximate fading over time. Looking at an image of the plate alone is deceiving, but when I held it in my hands, I noticed some things about it:
• The sheen of the plate is uniformly dull. When real 1912-1916 paint colour is as bright as this, there should be some gloss, but there is none.
• There is no alligatoring or crackling of the paint. Most real plates, if they have been sun-faded, should have cracks in the finish that can be felt by running the pads of your fingers across the face of the plate. But the texture is as smooth as a fresh sheet of photocopy paper.
• Pretty much every real tin plate should have some chips out of the paint due to flying gravel or general banging around when in use. But with these fakes, the texture is perfectly smooth.
• The wire rim, around which the fake tin is wrapped, is sprayed the same colour as the plate background. A real plate would have unpainted and worn rimming.
Then, when I flipped the plate over to see the back, I noticed some other aspects which more clearly exposed number 124 for the fake that it is:
• The wire rim isn’t actually a one-piece rectangular-shaped frame. Instead, four separate pieces of wire have been used, one on each side, and the tin is just wrapped around that. Close inspection of the corners on the reverse side of the plate shows that the wires are cut, with separate pieces used for each side, as the ends of the wire are exposed in each corner.
• The reverse side of the plate, where the tin has been wrapped around the wires, shows an undulating (wavy) surface of the tin, where pliers have been used to bend the tin. A real plate has a perfectly flat crimp here, as the tin was wrapped and crimped using a one-step hydraulic press.
• The mounting slots have been made by snipping the tin and then bending it backward on the reverse side. A real plate doesn’t have this—the mounting slots are made by removing the metal entirely via a punch-out of some kind.
• The corner holes are a little larger than they should be on these Thai-made fakes.
• The reverse side appears to be sprayed with a light gray primer. Actual tin plates were painted on the reverse side with a darker nondescript gray-brown.
• Even the wrapped-around portion of the tin is sprayed in this gray primer. On a real plate, the wraparound portion should be the same colour as the face, and it should bear the legend “MACDONALD MANUFACTURING CO. TORONTO” along the top (or it could be obliterated due to heavy scraping / chipping over time).
• The overall weight of the plate seems to be roughly correct, although I wasn’t in a position to make a direct comparison.
All this is to say that the front of the plate is very deceiving and authentic looking, but the rear of the plate reveals its counterfeit nature. If the plate is mounted to a wall, and all you can do is run your fingers along the face, expect it to feel smooth. If in doubt, don’t buy it, especially if it has a three-digit low number.
This same seller has also been making other provincial tin fakes, presumably using the same process. All six plates pictured in the gallery below are fakes. The single-digit Manitoba plate has been carefully prepared using the same techniques. It even has the bottom mounting slots, and bears the "box scar" around the numbers that all 1916 Manitoba plates have.
The ALPCA website publicly offers a Guide to Deceptive and Misleading Plates, containing known examples of fakes, including the Thai-made examples described here—but the info I provide above is based on my own first-hand experience studying one, vis-à-vis merely looking at an eBay-provided image. The ALPCA fake plate guide has been made freely available online to educate all collectors about the perils of fake plates.
However, I’m not through with this subject yet. At the same antique show, I found another vendor who was selling a fake 1915 of a different origin.
This plate, on the surface, may be laughable in terms of the modern font used for the year and number, which hardly approximates the real thing. There’s also the silly coat-of-arms, which is shown using solid black, and not the correct line-tone style (like on money) that is used on actual plates and the Thai fakes. It’s too glossy, and it doesn’t even have holes in its four corners. However, this plate has more authenticity going for it than meets the eye.
When I flipped this plate over, I could see the four missing corner holes. They’ve been covered on the front by a sort of vinyl coating. It looks as though the numbers and colours of the plate’s face were created using a vinyl printer of some sort, where the design was later adhered to the metal plate. I guess the maker forgot to push a hole punch through the corner holes afterward.
When I looked more closely at the rear of the plate, I was startled to see that the crimped wraparound section was perfectly straight, with no Thai-style, plier-caused undulation. Also, there were no wires exposed at the corners. It looked like an actual Macdonald plate, just sanded down and primed.
I looked further on the seller’s table and noticed that he had other tin plates for sale. They were all of the same construction, but they were all smooth and sprayed with light gray primer on both sides. He mentioned that these started as real plates, but the original paint was too far-gone to be legible, so they were sanded down and primed for the purposes of refinishing. Of course, completely refinishing flat plates in this way removes any authenticity. There’s no way to know what the original number was, or even which year between 1912 and 1916. In my book, it’s a fake.
The way in which this plate has been done is not alarming, as the design of the numbers clearly exposes the deception. But what is alarming is this: Combine the meticulous faces of the Thai-made fakes with actual baseplates that have been re-prepped… and there’s no telling whom they could fool.
Regardless of how they're made, they do pollute the hobby. The Thai-based seller, who openly discloses the fake nature of his plates, is breaking no actual laws, and as such, he is free to go about his business how he pleases. I will, however, educate collectors on this side of the ocean, in the hope that people new to the realm of Ontario plate-collecting learn to spot fake plates. If even one person is warned away from buying one, then I'm happy.
If you encounter an Ontario plate of any year, which you suspect might be a fake, contact me with a picture and I'll give you my best conclusion. It could be a great deal, but it could be a fake. And if you get stuck with one, it is unethical to perpetuate the problem by selling to someone else. Your best option would be to donate it to the ALPCA fake plate collection. Even if you're not a member of ALPCA (please do join), I'll help you find a member who can donate it for you (and provide proof that it was, in fact, donated).