Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Fakes and Forgeries: Buyer Beware

I recently saw this post on the Mercian Cycles webpage. In it, they alert readers to the problem of "fakes" -- bikes with Mercian decals that were brought to them for renovation or repairs, but which were not Mercians. The bikes in question were all purchased from online auctions such as eBay, and misrepresented by the sellers. Interestingly, because I almost always look closely at eBay auctions for vintage Mercians (as well as other interesting old brands), I think I may have seen some of the bikes in question. I remember seeing a few in the not-too-distant past that struck me as questionable.

The problem of fakes is nothing new, but it can be a real thorn in the saddle (that's not quite the expression, but it works, doesn't it?) for anyone looking at vintage bikes. Somebody has a nondescript, low-value old bike, gets it painted, and applies decals from a nicer, more valuable brand. Instant classic! Reproduction decals nowadays are really easy to find, for all kinds of makes -- and I'm actually kind of glad they are. For honest people who want to refurbish a nice old bike and give it a new life, having such decals available is a real benefit. But of course, it also opens the door for dishonest, disreputable people to try to take advantage of others.

Watching the vintage bike marketplace over the years, I've seen lots of "problematic" or "questionable" bikes. Certain brands seem to be faked more often than others, because they are so much more attractive to potential buyers. Colnago and Cinelli are pretty common targets from Italy, for example. In some cases, the fakes are so crudely done that only the most ignorant buyer would be taken in. High-quality, high-value bikes like that often have certain details in the build -- like lug shapes or cutouts, or seatstay attachment, etc. -- that make identification possible regardless of what the paint and decals look like. But sometimes it can be pretty difficult to tell. Windsor bicycles, made in Mexico, had some models that look a lot like classic Cinellis. New paint and some Cinelli decals, and it would be easy to fool someone who isn't a Cinelli expert (one tip-off is that classic Cinellis used a 26.2 seatpost, while Windsors used a 27.2 -- but how many people know that?).

In some cases I've seen, it isn't so much that the bike is exactly a fake, but that the vintage is misrepresented. Like many collectible items, the vintage of a bike can be important, and usually older is better. I've seen more than a few Colnagos (real ones) on eBay that might be of a less-valuable later vintage, but repainted and decalled as earlier examples. With things like that, it can be pretty hard to tell the difference if one isn't an expert (I'm not) -- but I've seen lots of discussion on the Classic Rendezvous group about these misrepresented bikes when they come up for sale.

Hetchins bikes have spawned so many fakes that it's practically a cottage industry. has a whole page dedicated to fakes, and some tips on how to identify them. Hetchins bikes are famous for their elaborate lugwork and very desirable models with "curly" or "vibrant" rear stays. According to the site, the curve of the stays, or the details in the lugs are often the tell-tale signs of fakes, but there is much more to know. Even if one doesn't plan to ever buy a Hetchins, that site is pretty interesting to read. One thing that I learned is that occasionally these forgeries are built from salvaged pieces from two or more wrecked or damaged frames, which can make them harder to identify. Other times, builders are able to get some of the real lugs or other framebuilding items, or they try to reproduce them with varying levels of success.

In some cases, a reputable builder might build a "replica" or "homage" to a classic bike with no intent to defraud anybody -- and personally I have no problem with that. I would think that as a framebuilder, it might be a personal challenge to try to replicate something from that past that one admires. But that can be a seriously touchy issue with some collectors because, as they would argue, what happens years later if someone else takes possession of the bike, applies bogus decals, and tries to pass it off as something it is not? That is a legitimate question. I've seen and heard many debates on the issue -- some people get pretty passionate about it. But a funny thing about some replicas is that, depending on the builder, sometimes the replicas are built even nicer than the vintage originals! Also, a good, reputable builder will usually do something on their bike to prevent problems in the future -- a stamp or engraving somewhere -- something deeper and more permanent than paint and decals. In cases like that, I would not consider the bike a "fraud" or "fake."

Getting back to the Mercians -- that is one of the vintage brands I feel like I know enough about to reliably be able to tell the difference between fake and real, although even with those, if it's a particularly early example, it can still be difficult to know for sure -- especially given the pictures and descriptions (or lack thereof) included in most online auction sales. There can be lots of variations in frame details, and it's hard to be familiar with every single one. It happens that I just saw a frame recently on the British eBay site that got me wondering about authenticity. It had clearly been repainted at some point, and pretty crudely at that. Obviously the frame had been badly rusted, and while the rust itself may have been removed, no effort had been made to repair the pitting in the metal before applying new paint. Right there was a sign that it was not done by a reputable painter, which should raise questions about authenticity -- It seems to me that a painter who does such a haphazard job would be more inclined than a reputable refinisher to slap any old decals on a bike. The seatstay treatment also didn't look quite right to me, and the serial number didn't seem to conform properly to Mercian's usual system. While I couldn't say for certain without more info and better photos, I know that I wouldn't have recommended paying a lot for that bike.

It isn't just vintage bikes that are subject to fraud. With the sky-high prices of so many of today's carbon fiber w√ľnderbikes, it should be no surprise that forgeries are becoming common. In a classic case of "if it sounds too good to be true. . ." these frames often sell for thousands of dollars below the usual retail prices, but may not be built to the same production standards or the same quality controls as the "real" frames. And unlike the vintage frauds, which are primarily a financial burden but not necessarily a safety issue, falling for one of these carbon fiber fakes could be downright dangerous.

Can you tell which of these Specialized Venge frames is real and which
 is fake? The Counterfeit Report says the one on the left is real. Apart from
some subtle differences in graphics, I'm not sure how someone would know.
Specialized has been particularly vigilant about tracking down counterfeit products, which partly explained their overaggressive reaction to Café Roubaix, a little bike shop in Alberta, Canada. Specialized went after the shop for copyright infringement last year, sparking a major backlash in public opinion. Specialized's founder, Mike Sinyard explained his company's position in an open letter to the industry in December. In the letter, he explained the scope of the problem with fake merchandise. "To give you an idea of how much this issue has blown up, 10 Specialized employees hunt fake products across 30 major e-commerce platforms. We've identified over 5,000 listings, worth $11,000,000 in counterfeit goods since January 1st of this year alone. This is about double what it was last year."

Mike Sinyard, of Specialized Bicycles, included these photos
in an "open letter" to the industry back in December. They
show some of the dangers in buying a carbon fiber fake.
The photos Sinyard included were pretty frightening. The thing is, I have concerns about carbon fiber frames and forks anyhow, as serious flaws can be buried deep inside the carbon layup and invisible to the eye. And that's with the "real" frames. Who knows what kind of quality control measures the fakes are held up to, if any? I've read in some of the bike forums about counterfeit carbon fiber frames that were not really carbon at all -- just molded thermoplastic with a thin, cosmetic layer of carbon on the surface. On a bogus vintage steel bike, a victim might be out some money, but at least the bike is unlikely to fall apart in the blink of an eye.

In a BikeRadar article on forgeries last May, Andrew Love of Specialized's Brand Security, Global Investigations, and Legal Enforcement Department, said that his company had put some of the fake frames through their quality control tests, and they failed -- badly. "It's a matter of time before someone gets killed on one of these things," he said.

From the same BikeRadar article: "Love, who shuts down operations all over the world, said the primary threat came from counterfeiters in China, who were ripping off the brand's Taiwanese-made frames. 'I think we face about four factories that have gone to the dark side, one major one for frames and one for apparel,' he said."

Part of me has a hard time feeling much sympathy for the manufacturers, though. In some ways, they've done a lot to help create the problem. Whether it's makers of carbon fiber bikes, smart phones, video game consoles, golf clubs, high-end basketball shoes, or expensive designer handbags -- so many companies have moved all their manufacturing to Asia to cut manufacturing costs to the bone, while selling the goods in the U.S. and around the world at premium prices. Knowing how much the goods can sell for, and how cheaply they can be produced, it shouldn't come as a surprise that some of the factories go to the "dark side." Not only that, but the retail prices on some of the "real" goods are so inflated in comparison with the production costs, that it isn't unusual to find deep discounts on "last year's" models -- discounts deep enough that it might not be so easy to tell the difference between "real" and "fake" based on the price.

Fakes and forgeries are a problem that goes back a long way. For bicycle fans, whether they're interested in old classics or modern marvels, it helps to be cautious and skeptical. When buying vintage, get as much information as you can about the bike in question. If it's got new paint, consider who did the work and what it might be covering. Get good photos and serial numbers and consult with other collectors (the Classic Rendezvous is a great place to start). And if you can't be certain, look elsewhere. When buying new, it's best to buy in-person from authorized dealers. If buying online, know that some retailers are more reputable than others, and if a $5000 carbon fiber frame is being offered for $900, it probably isn't worth it. The seller might say it comes from the same factory as the "real" version, and it's "just as good," but a healthy dose of skepticism can be a good thing. Fakes are a big business, so buyer beware.

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