Official tin: Collectors bringing order to vintage badges

Any mention of badges brings to mind a famous line from the 1948 film “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” in which Mexican bandits, claiming to be mounted police, confront a trio of fortune hunters on a mountainside.

Dobbs, one of the fortune hunters, played by Humphrey Bogart, hollers down to the Mexicans, “If you’re the police where are your badges?”

“Badges?” the puzzled ringleader replies. “We ain’t got no badges. We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!”

Collectors of law enforcement badges do not exhibit this belligerent attitude. Understandably, in an age of heightened security buyers may encounter uneasiness from sellers concerned about misuse of police badges. Once introduced, however, badge collectors are more than willing to share their knowledge of these symbols of law and order.

George E. Virgines of Milwaukee, a longtime collector and author of the 1987 self-published book “Badges of Law and Order,” said that while the ranks of badge collectors have increased they remain a select group and are often members of the law enforcement community.

“When I started there were only three or four badge collectors across the country and we all knew one another,” said Virgines, a former deputy sheriff in Lincoln County, N.M. Trading was the accepted method of acquiring badges among collectors. “We never sold badges to another collector.”

Most desirable of all are badges of the Old West. “They’re the ones that are scarcest,” said Virgines.

He recalled in the 1960s having the opportunity to acquire a badge that had belonged to Pat Garrett, sheriff of Lincoln County, N.M., who was known for killing outlaw Billy the Kid.

“I knew Pat Garrett’s son, and he had given his father’s badges to a dealer in El Paso to take care of. The dealer offered me one of the Pat Garrett badges for around $300. Even if he had only $25 on it, it would have been over my head,” said Virgines. “That same badge has changed hands a half dozen times and has gone for $150,000.

“When I first started if you paid $3 or $4 you were going overboard. Now that same badge is going for $200 to $300,” said Virgines, adding that it is common to pay $100 or more for a vintage badge.

High demand and escalating prices for early badges have resulted in many reproductions, some of which can be difficult to recognize. “A lot of collectors have gotten stuck with them. You have to be careful,” said Virgines.

“The bottom line is know who you’re getting the badge from. If he can’t give you any background on it, then you better start thinking about it — and trust your intuition. Of course, like anything the longer you’re at it the better you get at judging them,” said Virgines.

As the use of badges became widespread in the latter half of the 19th century, hundreds of companies began manufacturing them. Manufacturers often stamped their name, commonly called a hallmark, on the back of the badge.

A hallmark is an important aid in determining the authenticity of a badge, said Virgines. “If it doesn’t have a hallmark you have to be suspicious because there are so many repros,” he said.

“Law Enforcement Memorabilia,” an identification and price guide by Monty McCord, published in 1999 by Krause Publications, contains an extensive list of badge manufacturers and their hallmarks, some of which are pictured in close-up photographs.

McCord’s book also pictures various fasteners, which help date badges. For example, the Burgess Safety Catch was patented in 1909 and remains the most popular style catch used today. It replaced the simple “tongue” catch, which hooked the lower end of the pin.

Condition is not ordinarily an indicator of authenticity, said Virgines. “They’re not going to show that much wear because normally a police officer would usually take care of his badge. It was just as important as it was to shine the button on his uniform,” he said.

However, Virgines does not recommend cleaning or polishing old badges. “You don’t want to polish it or do anything that’s going to change its antique look,” he said.

Badges are found in a few basic forms. One of the oldest is the traditional star with five, six or seven points. A variation of the star-shaped badge is the addition of “balled tips” to the star points. Shield-shaped badges, often topped with an eagle, are also widely used.

Some badges have a center star formed by stamping out the surrounding area consisting of five triangles of equal size. These badges are most often round or sometimes in the shape of a shield. The famous law enforcement agency known as the Texas Rangers wore a five-point circled-star badge until the 1930s. Early Texas Ranger badges were stamped out of Mexican coins.

As police forces became more organized in the 1900s, place names, numerals and the officer’s name were added to the badges. The name of a law officer and a place name on a badge make it easier to authenticate.

Virgines said that badges from major cities are usually more desirable than those from towns or small cities. Those with place names are generally more desirable than stock badges that are stamped simply “Sheriff” or “Marshal.”

Among the most valuable are presentation badges, which were sometimes given to high-ranking officials for longtime service or on special occasions. “Presentation badges were often made of solid gold or silver and have jewels in them. They were made mostly by jewelers rather than badge companies,” said Virgines. “You won’t run across them often because they’re scarce.”

High Noon ( sold two such presentation badges at their Western Americana auction in January 2008. A fancy solid gold shield dated 1908 that was presented to a city marshal in Belton, Texas, sold for $17,500. A 14-karat gold star presented to a lieutenant of the San Francisco Police Department by fellow officers in 1934 sold for $3,750 at the same auction.

“They were stunningly beautiful,” said Linda Kohn Sherwood, co-owner of High Noon, comparing the badges to fine jewelry. “These are what collectors want most. The best of the best.”

Badge collections vary greatly in size and scope. George Virgines once owned about 300 badges and said that some collections number in the thousands. “That’s great but I would rather have one or two real good ones than a lot of run-of-the-mill badges,” he said.

Collectors often concentrate on badges from a specific city or state. “You might want to collect all the ranks of the (city’s) police department,” said Virgines.

Also collectible are federal agency and military police badges. Virgines recalls paying $5 for a sterling silver U.S. Treasury badge. “I’ve seen a badge like it trading a few times for more than $500 now,” he said.

On the low end of the scale are badges issued to security personnel of private companies.

“Regular badge collectors are into law enforcement badges. That’s the main attraction,” said Virgines, adding that American collectors have little interest in foreign badges.

A long-established source of badges and cloth emblems is Police Collectors News (RR1, Box 14, Baldwin, WI 54002), a monthly tabloid edited and published by Mike Bondarenko, who is also police chief of Prescott, Wis.

Bondarenko said that he does not recommend or promote newer badges as collectible. “As law enforcement officers we are acutely aware of the potential for misuse of these symbols of our profession,” he said.  “Vintage badges are the most fun. I’d much rather have an old badge worn by a police officer in the early 1900s,” he added. ?


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