The luxury authenticators that keep counterfeits out of buyers’ hands

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Rachel Koffsky, Senior Handbag and Accessories Specialist at Christie’s, with a 1994 Hermès Kelly bag, photographed for the FT by Harry Mitchell

Graham Wetzbarger knows what false tastes look like. “Tiffany & Co counterfeits can be coated with aluminum. If you taste it it’s like a soda can, it tastes metallic that sterling silver doesn’t, ”he explains.

Wetzbarger, an American luxury goods expert and former chief authenticator of consignment site The RealReal, strongly believes in the art of validating a luxury item, whether it is a work of art or a sneaker, relies on the use of several senses. Even so, he admits, the taste is very rarely used. “You smell a lot; there is a lot of glue in the fakes.

Spending on second-hand luxury goods has grown from £ 20bn in 2017 to £ 28bn in 2020, according to Bain, far outpacing growth in the overall luxury goods market. Online marketplaces and consignment sites, including The RealReal and Vestiaire Collective, have made it as easy to buy and sell second-hand as new – potential buyers no longer have to spend hours shopping around. browse thrift stores in search of a coveted handbag. or dress.

In this booming environment, counterfeits have proliferated. Fashion archivist Greg Chester of One of a Kind in London says handbag counterfeiters have become so skilled that the store has started to eschew this category altogether. “It’s not worth the risk for us,” he said. RealReal has previously been accused of failing to detect the fakes.

Kate Moss in an Autumn / Winter 1995 John Galliano silk dress, available from One of a Kind for £ 25,000.  .  .

Kate Moss in an Autumn / Winter 1995 John Galliano silk dress, available from One of a Kind for £ 25,000. . . © WireImage

.  .  .  and a Vivienne Westwood crochet look from fall / winter 1994, available from One of a Kind for £ 6,500

. . . and a Vivienne Westwood crochet look from fall / winter 1994, available from One of a Kind for £ 6,500 © WireImage

Human authenticators are expensive, and technological solutions designed to improve them – and possibly ultimately replace them – continue to evolve. In April, LVMH, working with Richemont-owned Prada and Cartier, launched Aura Blockchain Consortium, a global platform that gives unique digital identities to products, allowing customers to make sure their purchase is real. Authentication company Entrupy claims 99.1% accuracy after training its image recognition technology on a self-built database of hundreds of thousands of items.

A strapless Atelier Versace mini dress from Fall / Winter 1997, available at One of a Kind for £ 26,000

A strapless Atelier Versace mini dress from Fall / Winter 1997, available at One of a Kind for £ 26,000 © Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

However, these systems are still in their infancy. Image recognition technology needs to be trained on image databases that are still under construction. Humans are needed to ensure that the visual references provided to the machine are genuine products.

Blockchain, on the other hand, is usually applied at the source, when creating a product. When applied to vintage products, items must first be certified, which brings us back to human authenticators. For the most part, industry professionals see technology as a useful addition to a job destined to remain largely human for the foreseeable future. “It’s always a skill that takes a lot of hands,” says Wetzbarger. “Over 90% of the whole industry is human. “

Christie's Koffsky, who studied art history and mathematics, credits her training with critical analysis skills

Christie’s Koffsky, who studied art history and mathematics, attributes his critical analysis skills to his formal education © Harry Mitchell for the FT

Back to taste, smell and touch is good. When a trunk made of a very unusual metal arrived at Christie’s in 2018, Rachel Koffsky, the auction house’s senior specialist for handbags and accessories, sensed it could be ‘a rare Louis Vuitton piece from the end of the 19th century, in aluminum. . At the time, only one still existed, kept at the Louis Vuitton Foundation in Paris. Seeking scientific confirmation, Koffsky brought the trunk to the National History Museum, where it was analyzed in a basement laboratory.

As part of the authentication process, Christie's had this Louis Vuitton trunk analyzed at the National History Museum

As part of the authentication process, Christie’s had this Louis Vuitton trunk analyzed at the National History Museum © Christie’s

“The trunks made at the end of the 19th century were created for explorers traveling the world, and they had to be very light. Aluminum had just been invented and it was a very expensive material, known as Napoleon’s white gold, ”she explains. “Making sure it was aluminum was key to making sure it was the historic piece we felt it was going to be. The trunk was auctioned for £ 162,500 in December 2018.

Details such as the location of the make and brand label, as well as the construction of the garment itself and, in the case of a Chanel bag, the number of stitches between two quilted sections, can help authenticate an article. “It’s like learning a language,” says Chester, who keeps detailed calendars for each brand, recording details such as changes in finishing techniques or manufacturing labels. “After you’ve dealt with certain designers for so long, if something isn’t right, it comes out like a sore thumb. “

Promising second-hand luxury market

Counterfeiters make a profit by selling low-cost manufactured items at inflated prices, so the finishing techniques often fall short. For Chester as for Wetzbarger, returning a garment is essential. “Counterfeiters will spend 99% of their time on the outside of an item to fool the eye, so it’s when you get to the heart of the pieces that you start to see errors,” says Wetzbarger.

Hardware items such as buttons, studs, and fasteners are also key indicators. When it comes to zippers, for example, luxury brands rarely use Japanese brand YKK, the world’s largest zipper manufacturer in terms of sales, and instead opt for Riri or Lampo zippers, that Wetzbarger calls the BMWs and Mercedes zippers. Anything designed to improve inventory management and control, including serialization numbers, time stamps, or manufacturing labels, can be used by authenticators to track a garment’s style and date. “All those itchy things against your sides that a lot of people end up removing – it makes our job harder,” says Wetzbarger.

Luxury authenticators come from diverse backgrounds and learn much of the trade through first-hand experience, following other authenticators as there is no formal path to the field. Wetzbarger says many of her top recruits were previously luxury business assistants who had previously been trained to spot and appreciate craftsmanship, often by the brands themselves.

A limited edition Hermès Constance bag in swift leather and marbled silk

A limited edition Hermès Constance bag in swift leather and marbled silk © Harry Mitchell for the FT

Relying on seasoned authenticators to teach the trade to newcomers might have worked when pre-owned luxury was a niche market but, as the industry continues to grow and attract new players, demand of qualified authenticators has greatly exceeded availability. Wetzbarger says the basic training can be completed in six months, but it takes a few years of self-employment for an authenticator to be considered an expert. He laments the lack of a commercial organization or a guild of third-party authenticators that could provide a shared industry standard.

“Companies all form their own armies of authenticators because everyone is fighting for market share,” he says. “There are industry standards, but they are not really [formally] agreed. “

Solving these problems is essential for the success of the second-hand luxury market, says Claudia D’Arpizio, partner of Bain, who, despite the promise of blockchain, believes that people remain at the heart of the profession. “You have to have human contact there.”

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