U.S. Customs Service agents are developing a more refined taste for authentic antique furniture, porcelain and silverware.
Their new aesthetic sensitivity is aimed at learning to spot fakes.
Foreign exporters or U.S. importers can save themselves from 2 to 25 percent in tariffs by claiming falsely that their goods are more than 100 years old.
"We checked six shipments and in all six there were things that were declared as over 100 years old that weren't," said Michael Brom, the supervisor of Customs' general investigations division Wilmington, N.C.
As the customs investigator who kicked off his agencies' harder look at antique fraud back in 1989, Mr. Brom noted that this type of fraud is often perpetrated by the exporter overseas.
Undercover customs agents also are visiting antique dealers across the country looking for import-related consumer fraud.
In many cases, the telltale "Made in England" or "Made in China" marking has been removed from legally imported modern reproductions. Country-of-origin marking is required under federal law for any import manufactured within the last 20 years. Removal of the mark is a felony punishable by a year in jail and a $100,000 fine for the first offense.
Despite the antique industry's overall concern about fakery, the lure of the fast buck from a rube customer is a strong one.
"With the growing, much more sophisticated antique market and the diminishing supply, there is growing economic incentive for a dishonest tradesman," said Mario Rodriguez, owner of Mario Rodriguez Cabinetmaker of Brooklyn, N.Y.
An artisan who uses period tools in his work, Mr. Rodriguez crafts reproductions of antique furniture for New York designers at half the cost of the imported originals, which usually are not available on the market. "If an 18th century English piece would sell for $6,000, we could do it for $3,000," he estimated.
Mr. Rodriguez, also a lecturer in antique restoration techniques at New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, notes that a number of his customers have brought in antiques for refinishing, naively believing the furniture is much older than it really is.
Simple economics explain the disparity.
"When you run out of antiques and prices are up, people reproduce them. There's no problem with reproductions; but when you pass them off as antiques, there is a problem," explained Mr. Brom, who keeps watch over the U.S. region which is the main source of most American-made designer furniture.
"We visited a furniture conservation school in England where people are being trained and we were frankly horrified," said Ron Hurst, the curator of furniture at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which has the largest collection of 18th century English furniture in the United States.
"Antique furniture was being massively rebuilt, and when we asked students why the pieces were not marked, they said, 'Anyone who can't tell the difference doesn't deserve to know,' " Mr. Hurst recalled.
Unfortunately, sometimes even museums can't tell the difference. The high-tech art of antique reproduction includes chemical treatment of woods, thermal acceleration of glaze cracking and a variety of other modern aging techniques. Low-tech methods include beating table tops with chains to simulate decades of wear and burial.
The ingenuity of deception is impressive.
"It's pretty frightening," said Mr. Hurst.
In the course of his investigation, Mr. Brom of Customs has visited 150 antique stores in the northern North Carolina region. He discovered that "only one" store did not contain a "fake" antique. Generally, that meant the origin marking had been removed. Surprisingly, most dealers are unaware that the removal of the markings is illegal, he noted.
Such ignorance of importation law has faded in his jurisdiction, though.
"When you walk in, put a badge on them, show them the federal law and explain the $100,000 fine, it has a tendency to make them change," Mr. Brom explained.
His authenticity crusade has spread throughout the country. "After we started, stories started trickling out, and an enormous amount of information came in from the public. That's being investigated now in various districts," he said.
Among the sources of antiques involved in either duty or marking removal fraud are England and France in Europe, and China, Japan and Taiwan in Asia, Mr. Brom said.
Some of the products most commonly involved in the fraud include furniture from Europe and porcelain from Asia, but the scope is broad.
"The entire city of Dresden was annihilated; now suddenly there are thousands of pieces of antique Dresden porcelain for sale. If there's a market, they'll get into it," Mr. Brom mused.