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Paris' house of knock-offs

The Museum of Counterfeiting aims to educate the public on the scope and cost of the global problem. Luxe goods are represented, as are the more mundane, like fake knives, Laughing Cow cheese and Viagra.

July 26, 2009|Adam Tschorn

There's a postage stamp-sized place in Paris' 16th arrondissement that houses a collection of luxury goods that would be the envy of any upscale boutique. Louis Vuitton monogram-covered handbags and wallets crowd shelves with Hermes scarves and ties, and shoes by the likes of Burberry and J.M. Weston. Well-dressed mannequins wear suits from YSL and Versace, and polo shirts by Lacoste. Rows of designer sunglasses and high-end perfumes sit neatly in glass cases, carefully labeled in French.

After ringing the bell and being buzzed into the foyer, casual visitors adjusting to the dim light might think they've stumbled into a retail version of Noah's ark housing exactly two of every kind of upscale animal: two Lacoste crocodile shirts, two Hermes scarves, double doses of Birkins, hobos and clutches.

But a closer examination reveals it's more a menagerie of malfeasance. One Lacoste crocodile is a bit ragged around the edges, hardware on some of the Hermes handbags is crudely finished metal, and the leather is roughly finished. And although a quartet of Louis Vuitton caps feature the famed LV logo, they bear no resemblance whatsoever to any headgear the company has ever made.

This is the Musee de la Contrefacon (Museum of Counterfeiting), a fascinating five-room short course in the history of knock-offs, counterfeits and blatant infringements. The burgeoning trade in fakes annually costs France alone an estimated 38,000 jobs and 6 billion euros (roughly $8.5 billion at current exchange rates) according to the International AntiCounterfeiting Coalition, that's just a small corner of the $650 billion a year in revenue, taxes and jobs that business, governments and individuals lose at the hands of those who trade in counterfeit goods.

The museum was opened in 1951 by a French trade group known as the Union des Fabricants or Unifab to help educate the general public about the scope and costs of the problem. And its displays, which house pieces that date as far back as Greek amphora and are as recent as Microsoft Windows software, highlight some of the telltale details that could help even a novice shopper steer clear of today's counterfeit goods.

All the museum's counterfeit holdings are genuine knock-offs too, most adjudged so and donated by the brands themselves, most often as a result of court action, and occasionally from a customs seizure. Although the verified fakery makes the items valuable learning tools, it also means companies reluctant to admit they've been victimized -- usually because they think it will undermine public confidence in their product -- are woefully under-represented. The museum is best viewed as a snapshot in time, the frozen tip of a lurking iceberg of illegal activity.

One display points out that genuine Lacoste polo shirts are sized numerically, so a label indicating "M" or "XL" is a dead giveaway. Another notes that on Ray-Ban sunglasses, the lensmaker's mark (a B&L for Bausch & Lomb, for example) should be visible on the lens. (The reality, of course, is that by the time these pieces end up in the museum, the counterfeiters have long since learned from their mistakes.)

The side-by-side comparisons are instructive, making such subtleties more readily apparent. But the museum's most startling lessons unfold when the status goods that glow from the exhibits nearest the entrance give way to the stuff of everyday life. It's here that the museum makes its strongest case for why consumers should care about counterfeiting.

Exhibits are stocked with faux foodstuffs (including Tabasco, powdered milk, Laughing Cow cheese, Coca-Cola, Perrier and vermouth), tools (Swiss Army knives, Stanley tape measures), toys (poor quality "Babie" dolls stand elbow to elbow with Barbies), car parts (oil filters, body panels, brake pads, ball bearings) and home appliances (pressure cookers) and, most frighteningly, health and beauty products such as condoms, pregnancy tests and Viagra -- the only visible difference between the real and the fake being the shade of blue on the box.

Here, with displays that showcase cheaply made prophylactics, knife blades that lack safety locks and drugs of dubious provenance, the emphasis shifts from aesthetics to safety, reflecting both the changing nature of the counterfeit trade and Unifab's attempts to give consumers a clear sense of the potential risks that come with counterfeits.

"We did a study in France, and most people think of counterfeiting as a game they play with the police," said Unifab President Marc-Antoine Jamet. "They don't think about the fact that these companies use child labor, or that if they are making illegal goods they probably aren't going to care about recycling."

In addition to educating consumers at home, Unifab helps the effort on the world stage. "It's very difficult, for example, for Lacoste to say to the king of Morocco: 'I am the chairman of Lacoste and we have a big, big problem because there are fake Lacoste shirts in every city in Morocco," Jamet says.

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