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Thursday, June 12, 2014

To find fakes, vintage-car sleuth hunts by the millimeter


Bloomberg Businessweek
1930 Bentley Blower. Pre-WWII Bentleys rank among valuable classics caught in counterfeit disputes.
1930 Bentley Blower. Pre-WWII Bentleys rank among valuable classics caught in counterfeit disputes.
Something was wrong. The BMW 328 Roadster had been sitting in Norbert Schroeder's Dusseldorf, Germany, garage for three days, and its owner was growing impatient. Schroeder had already inspected the car once without finding anything amiss. Yet he could feel it in his bones: Something wasn't right.

"Focus, Norbert," he told himself. "Focus."
Schroeder, 53, doesn't wear a deerstalker hat or smoke a meerschaum pipe. Yet he's the closest thing the classic-car world has to a real-life Sherlock Holmes, Bloomberg Pursuits will report in its Summer 2014 issue.

 He works for TUV Rheinland Group, a German technical-testing company, as a vintage-car appraiser and restoration consultant. His specialty is authentication: proving that a classic car is what a dealer or owner says it is -- or, increasingly, disproving it.

In 2013 alone, classic-car values increased 28 percent, according to the Luxury Investment Index maintained by London real estate brokerage Knight Frank LLP.

 Many sought-after models, such as a 1955 Aston Martin DB2/4 or a Ferrari 250 Testarossa, have seen auction prices triple or quadruple during the past decade. As prices have soared, so, too, has the number of fakes.

"In the 1990s, I used to find one fake car every five years," Schroeder says. "Last year, I found eight."

A car's coachwork -- the distinctive design and shape of its exterior -- is what makes it recognizable to a layperson. For an appraiser such as Schroeder, however, the key to identifying a classic car is its chassis. And it was to the BMW's chassis that Schroeder returned.

"I decided to look millimeter by millimeter," he says.

BMW 328. Photo: BMW
BMW 328. Photo: BMW

The 328 is a sporty, open-topped racer that Bayerische Motoren Werke AG produced from 1936 to 1940. Modified versions chalked up wins at a number of the era's pre-eminent European races, including France's 24 Hours of Le Mans and Italy's Mille Miglia. Of the 464 produced, only 180 are thought to survive. An original can sell for $500,000; in 2010, a Mille Miglia winner went for $5.6 million.

Schroeder knew that on an authentic 328, the gearbox attaches to the chassis three centimeters behind the first set of crossbars that create the chassis's signature A shape. The attachment point was exactly where it should be. But as Schroeder felt for the threading used to bolt the gearbox to the chassis, he discovered something strange: It wasn't there. Instead, the gearbox had been welded in place.

"Aha! There is something wrong!" he recalls thinking. Schroeder had just uncovered another fake.

While restoration has always been a legitimate part of the vintage-car market, the issue can be devilishly complicated. When I meet up with Schroeder on the floor of the Techno Classica Essen, one of Europe's most important vintage-car fairs, he shows me a 1951 Ferrari 166 F2.

The vehicle, one of just three built, is worth at least two million euros ($2.8 million), Schroeder says. That's because the 166's chassis is totally original -- which isn't always the case.

Schroeder has even come across cars where the left side of the chassis is original and the right-hand side is a reproduction. Before the 1970s, splitting up a race car's chassis and creating two or more new vehicles around it was not uncommon. As long as part of the chassis is authentic, a car can generally claim to be the genuine article.

The issue comes down to transparency -- telling a buyer exactly which parts are original and which are restored or new - - and the seller's intent.

"The fraud lies in holding it out to be the real machine when you know it is not," says Martin Emmison, a lawyer who specializes in collector-car cases at Goodman Derrick LLP, a London firm. Emmison notes that many counterfeits begin life as legitimate replicas before being passed off as originals by unscrupulous dealers.

As a rule, Schroeder's antennae begin to twitch whenever he is confronted with a model he knows is easy to knock off using an authentic but much less expensive chassis from a model of similar vintage.

 A Ferrari hardtop can be turned into a more desirable Ferrari Cabriolet, and a road car like a 1973 Porsche 911 Carrera can be made to look like a Porsche 911 Carrera RS race car, its much more valuable cousin.

Uncovering a fake requires an encyclopedic knowledge of classic cars and can turn on the smallest of clues: Schroeder recently discovered a counterfeit Mercedes 300SL Gullwing (the real deal is worth about $1.2 million) because of a slight aberration in the font used to stamp its vehicle identification number.

 Also suspect are sellers who are vague on a car's recent ownership or who claim to have discovered the chassis of a famous race car that has been missing for decades.

"I would say that less than one in 10 of the missing cars you hear about being discovered is what it purports to be," says Simon Kidston, a classic-car expert and broker based in Geneva.

Currently playing Moriarty to Schroeder's Sherlock is a Chechen crime syndicate churning out near-perfect counterfeit vintage BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes. Fraudsters have been known to leave unpainted car parts exposed to the elements for years to mimic the patina of old metal in the hopes of fooling appraisers.

 Schroeder knows of one gang that went so far as to source 1920s steel from discarded colonial-era railroad tracks in India to build the chassis of a fake Bugatti, enabling the car to withstand even metallurgical analysis.

Back on the floor of the Techno Classica, we are about 10 feet from a red Porsche 356A Speedster selling for close to one million euros when Schroeder stops short. I am midquestion, but he extends an index finger to silence me. He stands still and stares.
"The car and I, we are talking," he says.

Schroeder estimates that he inspects at least 200 cars a year worldwide and has learned to trust his instincts. He circles the Porsche, drawing ever closer. He frowns. Without scrutinizing the chassis, he says he can't say anything for sure.

"I don't know," he says. "I just have a bad feeling about this one."