Where Yesterday Meets Tomorrow
"Know thine Enemy." That's good advice for every serious antiques collector or dealer. We recently ventured into the deepest bowels of the Repro Monster, visiting Castle Reproductions in Hawley PA. It should be an obligatory pilgrimage for every collector and dealer. We made our hegira during a trip to Virginia this October.
Hawley is located in northeastern PA in the heart of the Pocono Mountains. The drive is beautiful. And the town of Hawley seemed very attractive, with several NICE antique centers and shops to make the trip worthwhile.
Castle Repros is located in a huge old factory building on the main road into town from the south. As we approached, we saw a parking lot full of cars, cube vans, and covered trailers. There were loading docks off to the side with people loading up trailers full of Castle merchandise, all on it's way to a store or auction near you.
We entered the building. The first floor is the retail floor. The second floor is wholesale. If you have a dealer sales tax resale number, you fill out the usual tax form and are admitted to the second floor. The items on the second floor are marked at 1/2 the price displayed on the first floor. Or dealers can buy goods on the first floor at 1/2 the price marked. (All prices quoted in this article are wholesale dealer prices unless noted otherwise.)
The full name of the place is "Castle Antiques and Reproductions" and there are, indeed, a few legitimate antiques, marked with a blue tag, on the first floor. They must be there as window dressing though because the prices are absurd, even at 50% off. For instance, there was a nice set of Crooksville China, 92 pieces. Crooksville is a mice but not great name in American dinnerware. We'd put it out for $95. Castle's price was $550 ($275 dealer!) You could buy a set of 6 trade cards (of the sort you can buy at any antique shop for $1 each) which were glued to a backer board (thereby ruining any value they might have had) and mounted in a $2.00 Wal-mart frame. Castle's price? $70 ($35 dealer!) And several of the "blue tag" items looked like fakes to us. But people don't go to Castle for the antiques. The antiques are simply show pieces to try to add a veneer of legitimacy to the operation.
It's the fakes that the most of the customers come for and there were thousands of different items to choose from. Here is a litany of just of few of the ones most likely to cause you difficulty.
The place had a lot of customers, most of them in the 2nd floor dealer area. We only saw one customer on the first floor - a couple with a child in a stroller. On the second floor, there were a large number of people, many wheeling shopping carts around just like at the supermarket. We overheard one group of dealers doing their christmas shopping along with restocking their inventory! Here's a counterfeit majolica pitcher for aunt Minnie; here's some fake doll china for Sarah; and a wow, look at this phoney Gulf oil sign for Uncle George! We trust they'll all be thrilled with their gifts.
We remain mystified as to why this kind of an operation is able to function. The operators will claim that THEY are not cheating anyone. They aren't representing their items as anything other than reproductions. The items have country of origin marks on them when required. They'll say their simply creating nice "decorator items" for people who can't afford the real thing. And if someone else uses them to defraud after they leave Castle, it's not Castle's responsibility. All of which, of course, is total nonsense.
They call the place Castle Antiques and Reproductions. But the fact that they have a small handful of antiques scattered around on the first floor amongst the tens of thousands of fakes, doesn't justify the misleading effect of the name. The country of origin marking are put on with labels so easily removed that the floors are covered with them. They fall off so easily that a purchaser could defend himself against a charge of removing the label by claiming that he didn't remove it, it just fell off. If they really intended them to be sold as decorator items, they would put a date and origin on every item with an indelible mark. If they were proud of their work, they'd mark it with a great big Castle logo to develop some brand recognition. Such a mark would have no adverse impact on "decorator" sales.
As we were leaving, they gave us a nice thick catalog and two recent updates and assured us that they "have new items arriving every week." (The catalog and updates are available for review at Coxsackie Antique Center.)
It should be added that Castle is not the only company purveying these fakes. There are dozens of companies bringing in hundreds of container ship loads every year, and hundreds of "freelancers" targeting specific collector areas.
There is an alarming indifference within the antiques community about the "repro" problem. Many people seem to think that they are smart enough to avoid being fooled by fakes and they don't sell fakes themselves, so the problem doesn't concern them. How wrong they are. Repros damage us all in many ways.
The first injury is ethical: In a civilized society, we should not be trying to cheat people. (And of course 99% of dealers bend over backward to avoid doing that. Dealers are far far more often the victims than the purveyors.)
The second injury is financial: Supply and demand determine financial value.
Repros artificially increase supply - often creating many times the number of true items. Every buyer who gets suckered in by a fake item is one less person looking for a real one. And once they discovered they've been cheated, they are soured on that entire field of collecting.
Repros also depress demand. The knowledge that large numbers of counterfeits are circulating frightens away potential collectors. The result is a drop in price for items. That effect has been seen in cast iron toys, in pattern and depression glass, in quilts, and in many other areas of collecting. The result is fewer potential buyers for a much greater pool of goods. Inevitably, prices fall.
The third injury, perhaps the most important of all, is cultural: We like to think of the antiques community - collectors, dealers, preservationists alike - as the caretakers of our heritage, as a connection to our forbearers. Antiques are time travelers - ambassadors from the past. The introduction of huge numbers of fakes into our society is diluting, distorting, demeaning, and degrading our heritage. Most of these fakes are so shoddily produced that today they are pretty obvious but as they move out into society and across the years, as Aunt Minnies Majolica accumulates a coating of kitchen grime and Uncle George's Gulf sign hangs in the garage and rusts, they will acquire the patina, wear, etc. that will give them a much more plausible look. In twenty or fifty years, they will have aged to the point where it will be much harder to tell the fake from the authentic. We will then have a situation where the poor quality of the contemporary counterfeiters is attributed to the original manufacturers of an earlier era. The love for our heritage is based substantially on our respect for the quality and care that our forbearers used in producing their material goods. If the items we are exposed to as "old" are actually shoddy recent fakes, then that reverence for the past will fade away, and along with it, the love for antiques.
So don't just wink at the repro pushers and turn away. Eliminating this blight is important to all of us.
We do not have to tolerate the repro scourge. Here are some things to do. There are laws on the books making much of this fraudulent behavior illegal. Unfortunately, the federal government chooses not to enforce those laws except on behalf of important companies and economic interests. What has to be done is to create pressure on the pointy headed bureaucrats to enforce the laws that exist and on Congress to add additional legal protection.
The are currently laws requiring that imported items be marked with country of origin and making it illegal to remove country of origin tags! Enforcement of those laws would quickly eliminate most of the market for foreign made counterfeits but would simply drive the pushers toward American manufacturers. Still it would be a start.
There is a law on the books called the Hobby Protection Act of 1973. It requires that counterfeit political items and numismatic items be marked "plainly and permanently." The law was passed because the politicians were upset that people were counterfeiting political items (and one of the Congressmen on the conference committee must have been a stamp collector.) Recent efforts to get the FTC to extend that protection to all antiques failed because the FTC concluded that it did not have the authority to broaden the law beyond the scope of Congresses intent and said that it was up to Congress to expand the law. So write your Congressman! We have postcards at the Center all ready for you to fill in and send. We'll pay the postage. Incidently, Castle Reproductions contained dozens of political items and posters, none "plainly and permanently" marked. So here's a chance to begin enforcing existing law.
The FTC claimed that the Customs service would investigate complaints of counterfeits being sold without country of origin tags. The customs service maintains a telephone hotline to accept reports. 1-800-ITS-FAKE (aka 1-800-487-3253). Call them and complain every time you see a counterfeit Roseville piece or paper items, etc. in an antique mall or flea market! You should also submit a written complaint to: Office of Field Operations, Commercial Enforcement Branch, U.S. Customs Service, 1300 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington DC 20229.
What else can you do while you are waiting for our public servants to do their job?
First, when you find repros in a mall or an auction or a flea market, raise hell! Make a fuss, cause a commotion, raise a ruckus. Embarrass the pushers, embarrass the mall management. Complain to the other dealers at the mall. Tell them that you can't buy at that Center because they are allowing fakes to be sold and if some things are fakes, others might be too.
Second, buy from dealers who identify themselves. Even at flea markets, look for dealers who put out their card. If you buy anything of substantial value, ask the dealer to write a description of the item on the sales slip and ask for a guarantee of authenticity. And ask them to put their name and address on the receipt. Reputable dealers will be glad to do so. (It wouldn't hurt to write down their license plate number either.)
Third, refuse to patronize dealers who have more fakes than ignorance could explain. They are either too ignorant to be reliable or too dishonest.
Fourth, refuse to patronize auctions that tolerate fakes. Auctions are a major conduit for flooding the country with this junk. Remember the auctioneer's special on Roseville. A few months ago, counterfeit telescopes and sextants suddenly flooded the country. The scammers mailed pieces to auctions all over the country to be sold simultaneously! There is no way that an auctioneer, getting something like that in the mail, would not know that the pieces were fakes! And yet almost everyone who got them sold them. The pieces were selling at auction for hundreds of dollars, and the victimized dealers where reselling them at Antique Centers for even more hundreds of dollars. Thousands of people were cheated. (We had to refund about $400 to a customer at Coxsackie Antique Center!)
In the end, the only thing that will stop the flood of counterfeits is the indignation of the antiques community focused on our colleagues who peddle this trash and on auctioneers who provide the profit and the distribution network. We have to make the cost of pushing fakes greater than the cost of honesty.
© 1997-2002 Coxsackie Antique Center