Keeping it Real
AS SECONDARY MARKET BOOMS, THERE ARE WAYS TO PROTECT YOURSELF FROM GROWING PROBLEM OF ‘SUPER-FAKE’ HANDBAGS
By Barbara Tunick
There was a time not long ago when connoisseurs and collectors of luxury accessories never worried about buying or selling counterfeit bags. That’s because fake bags were clearly knock-offs: the color was wrong, the leather didn’t feel or smell right, the hardware was off and, sometimes, even the designer’s name was misspelled. Plus, fake bags were only sold on the sly, in back rooms and on folding tables on city sidewalks.
In the ongoing quest to ferret out fake bags, some people may mistake inconsistencies for forgeries. Here are three things to consider:
An extra stitch. “Hermès craftsmanship is truly like no other,” says Diane D’Amato, Heritage Auctions’ director of luxury accessories. “Since every bag is made by hand, an extra stitch may simply be human error. It doesn’t automatically mean the bag is counterfeit.”
Length of a chain. “I can’t tell you how many times people bring in bags they think are fake because the chain is too long or too short,” says leather craftsman and authenticator Gerry Gallagher, “but the length of a chain does not immediately indicate a fake bag. It simply could have been altered to fit the buyer.”
Unexpected color or style. Sometimes, bags are created for a specialized market. “Hermès or Chanel may create a limited collection within a particular country, or for a special event like the opening of a boutique,” D’Amato says. “These unusual finds are rare and not necessarily fake.”
Today, however, due to the accessibility and abundance of bags both online and on the secondary market, there is a proliferation of counterfeit bags. “Ironically, the luxury houses created the secondary market by limiting the amount and style of bags clients can purchase,” explains Diane D’Amato, director of luxury accessories at Heritage Auctions.
Indeed, the boom in the secondary market coincides with the continued rise of the global counterfeit market. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, $450 billion worth of counterfeit goods were bought and sold last year.
FAKE OR FANTASTIC?
Unlike their inferior predecessors, today’s faux bags look, feel and even smell real. So much so that even the most discerning luxury client can be fooled. “Counterfeit bags,” D’Amato says, “have gotten much more sophisticated and are harder to detect – especially if it’s a ‘super fake,’ made with authentic exotic skins or leather, and genuine hardware.”
When luxury buyer Justin Navin purchased what he thought were six new Chanel bags for $20,000, he was confident he could re-sell them. Yet, nearly two years later, the bags are still nestled in their boxes in a corner of his home in Calabasas, Calif. “They looked exactly like the Chanel I bought from the store to use as a comparison,” Navin says. “They had authenticity cards, blue plastic covering the hardware, dust bags and Chanel boxes.”
Navin, owner of Luxury Buyers LLC, a multi-million dollar luxury bag and diamond business, discovered the bags were fake only after consigning them, along with several others, to Heritage Auctions last summer. “I had no idea they weren’t real until Diane called,” he says. “I don’t think there’s anything more I could have done to protect myself. I learned everything I could about bags, and up until then, I had never bought a fake.”
“Something just wasn’t right with Justin’s bags,” D’Amato recalls. “They didn’t have the right weight, the skins looked off and the boxes felt different, so I sent them to Gerry Gallagher for a definitive answer.”
Having repaired and restored more than 250,000 Hermès and Chanel bags and accessories over four decades, Gallagher is a world-renowned authenticator and leather craftsman. In fact, he coined the term “super fake” about five years ago in his studio, Leather Surgeons, in Doylestown, Pa. As he recalls, a client sent him what appeared to be two brand new Chanel bags that had been authenticated by two different authenticators. Even though the bags looked and felt genuine, something was off. After thoroughly examining the bags, Gallagher decided the only way to know for sure was to take a closer look inside.
“Just like a house is built on a foundation, a luxury bag is as well,” Gallagher says. “Counterfeiters aren’t worried about perfecting the inside of a bag because no one is going to look under the lining. As soon as I opened the seams and looked inside, I knew they weren’t real.”
According to Gallagher, super-fake bags can be made with materials from genuine bags, making them especially tricky to identify. In fact, the first bags he authenticated for Heritage Auctions were five bags that appeared to be Chanel Jumbo Alligator Classics.
“Diane knew something was wrong with the bags, but she couldn’t put her finger on it,” he says. “She has a ton of experience and a super eye, so when she suspects something is off, it usually is. The bags were fantastic. The hardware and authenticity cards were right, but I know the way Chanel cuts and seams alligator, and these were off.” After further investigation, Gallagher solved the mystery.
“Whoever made the bags meticulously copied a Chanel, but didn’t bother to copy an exotic so there were inconsistencies which made me question its legitimacy,” Gallagher explains. “A great authenticator develops a sense of the bag. It’s more than counting stitches or measuring the width. There’s something about the brand that transcends the mechanics of the bag. You have to understand the intention of the artist.”
The counterfeiters took their newly made alligator shells and built them around authentic linings. “They spent about $2,400 on alligator skins for each bag hoping to create $40,000 handbags. I call these Frankenstein bags because they’ve molded the fake and real together like a monster,” chuckles Gallagher.
Hermès bags, he notes, are more difficult to counterfeit because they are hand-stitched by artisans, as opposed to machine-stitched. “Even when they [Hermès artisans] drop a stitch or have a double stitch,” Gallagher says, “the bag is a different kind of perfect. This makes them much harder to replicate.”
Chanel and Hermès, however, aren’t the only bags being forged. “Practically every luxury designer has been knocked off,” warns D’Amato, “including Dior, Gucci, Goyard and Louis Vuitton.”
“People think buying and selling counterfeit goods is a victimless crime, but it isn’t,” warns Robert Barchiesi, president of the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition (IACC) in New York. “It not only hurts the consumer, it devalues the brand, especially in the luxury market where there is a history and sense of quality and pride associated with a brand. It also helps fund organized crime, including drugs, guns and human trafficking.”
And contrary to what some believe, Barchiesi says, “bags are not being walked out the back door of the designers’ factories at night. The majority of fake bags are coming from China. They’re also coming from Hong Kong, Singapore and India.”
Catching international counterfeiters, Barchiesi says, has been complicated by the prevalence of online shopping. “Years ago, there would have been a lot of shipping containers seized with counterfeit goods, but today the fakes are being shipped directly to the consumer,” he says. That hasn’t stopped the IACC from trying to thwart the influx of fake goods.
“We strongly believe in bringing together a global coalition in the fight against fakes,” Barchiesi says. “That has been our primary mission for the last five years. It’s bringing brand holders together with Homeland Security and law enforcement departments. We train police, prosecutors and custom officials around the world. We have partnerships in place so if a website based in China knowingly sells bags to consumers in New York, we will shut them down.”
Since buying desirable bags directly from boutiques can be challenging due to notoriously long wait lists, collectors often seek out the secondary market. However, consumers need to be especially educated about the products. Learn as much as you can about the bag, as well as about the person or place from whom you’re buying it, advises Barchiesi. “If you’re buying a bag online, carefully look at the website and call the customer service number before making a purchase. Oftentimes, a sham site will have a number that doesn’t work.”
“One of the most important things you can do to protect yourself,” adds Gallagher, “is to buy from a reputable source. Make sure the bag’s authenticity is guaranteed before you buy it.”
“That’s one thing you never have to worry about when buying from Heritage Auctions,” adds D’Amato. “We guarantee that everything we sell is authentic. We check and double-check everything from the hardware and blind stamps to making sure the leather or exotics are made in the color and style consistent with the corresponding year.
“I’ve been doing this a long time, so much of it comes as second nature,” D’Amato says. “Sometimes just by looking at or touching a bag will make me question its authenticity, and if there’s even the slightest doubt, I’ll send it to an outside authenticator. The last thing I want to do is call a client to tell him his bag is fake.”
Justin Navin knows exactly how that feels. “I really don’t know what I’ll do with these bags,” he says regretfully. “Maybe I’ll just give them to my mom.”
BARBARA TUNICK is a New York-area writer who has written for numerous national magazines and newspapers, including The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Bark and Popular Science. All the statements and opinions in this story are those of the people interviewed. They are not from or reflect the opinions of Chanel, Hermès or any other luxury house.
FAKE VS. REAL
FIRST THINGS FIRST…
Before buying a luxury bag, learn as much as you can about it, including which colors, styles, leathers and hardware are used to create it.
When buying Hermès, make sure:
- The engraving and hot stamp are clean and even.
- You can’t unscrew the feet.
- The hardware is authentic. Hermès only uses precious metal, so it practically never peels.
• The edging is solid, firm and waxy. It should never feel spongy or sticky.
- It does not come with an authenticity card. Hermès does not include them.
When buying Chanel, make sure:
- It has the right screws. Chanel uses flat screws and star screws, but rarely Philips head screws except when Lucite hardware is used.
- Authenticity stickers are actually authentic. Be wary if the stickers are thin or one solid sticker rather than an X-cut. Older Chanel bags do not have an X-cut, but new ones do.
- The 0’s in serial numbers for newer Chanels have strike-throughs; 1’s have small serifs (feet).
- There aren’t any generic snaps or magnets where Chanel logo snaps should be.
- Stitching on leather chain straps are clean and seamless. There shouldn’t be any lines or bumps.
NOT YOUR AVERAGE AUTHENTICATOR
There’s good reason auction houses like Heritage trust Gerry Gallagher. Along the way to becoming a world-renowned leather craftsman and authenticator, Gallagher:
- Worked for numerous celebrities and royal families.
- Repaired and restored artifacts for the Museum of Natural History, as well as props for the James Bond and The Equalizer franchises.
- In his spare time, he has helped the FBI by creating hidden compartments in suitcases to use in court demonstrations.
In the 1950s, Hermès used newspapers in some of their handbags to fill the space between the shell and lining of the bag. When Gallagher deconstructed a vintage Kelly Bag, he discovered a French newspaper inside. “It was like a time capsule for the week it was manufactured,” he says. “Because it was sealed, the newspaper was almost in pristine condition.”
This story appears in the Winter 2018-2019 edition of The Intelligent Collector magazine. Click here to subscribe to the print edition