The Museum of Counterfeiting, Paris – A Walk on the Wild Side
Original Giacometti bronze sculpture (left), lengthened by counterfeiters (at the stomach, paws and tail) to compensate for the reduction in volume during the casting of counterfeit copies (right). © Musée de la contrefaçon
Seen the Eiffel Tower? Floated down the Seine? Visited the Louvre? And now searching for a more esoteric Parisian destination? Then look no further than the compact and beautifully housed Museum of Counterfeiting. Occupying the ground floor of an elegant, 19th century building – used as a setting for many films and TV shows (including La Grande Vadrouille, one of the most famous French films of all time) – it features products for every taste. From perfume, toys, and cleaning products to USB keys, car parts, sporting goods and pharmaceuticals – even including bottled water, tomato ketchup and liquid gas – the Museum offers a wide-ranging, intriguing and rather disturbing display of the enormous extent of counterfeiting.
Given its subject matter, it seems particularly appropriate that the Museum is situated on the rue de la Faisanderie, “faisan” being the French word for a crook. And visitors quickly learn that crooks, and counterfeiting, have been around for a long time. The oldest counterfeit products on display, dating from around 200 BC, are stoppers used to seal amphorae filled with wine being transported from Italy to Gaul. A genuine stopper, with the wine merchant’s mark, is shown next to its counterfeit used by an ancient Roman free-rider hoping to cash in on someone else’s market success. Over 2,000 years later, the problem is still with us. It is estimated1 that 7 to 10 percent of global trade derives from counterfeits, costing the world economy around US$ 492 billion a year.
Throughout the Museum, authentic goods are displayed with their corresponding imitations – obtained following customs seizures or court judgments or settlements – to highlight the differences between genuine products and their illegal and sub-standard doppelgangers.
The Museum’s message underscores the negative, widespread and potentially dangerous impact of counterfeiting on producers, consumers and the economy: not only discouraging innovation, depriving rightholders of income and supporting organized crime, but also threatening health and safety.
It notes that badly made counterfeit toys are, at best, soon damaged (“False Barbies” one captions warns, “quickly go bald”); at worst, they incorporate inflammable materials or toxic substances, such as lead paint, or have small breakable parts that present a choking hazard. The dangers are many and varied, counterfeit products by their nature elude any health or safety controls. The Museum runs the gamut, from fake sunglasses that do not adequately protect the eyes to counterfeit car and airplane parts that risk failing with disastrous consequences, and sub-standard electrical appliances that present myriad domestic dangers. Fake medicines are a particularly pernicious and perennial problem, often containing no, or insufficient, active ingredients or even incorporating toxic elements. It is estimated2 that they make up from 10 to over 30 percent of the market in developing countries.
The Museum recently opened a new wing, dedicated to copyright crime. Its exhibits range from fake statuettes of Rodin, Dali and Giacometti – often showing counterfeiting techniques, such as the application of acid followed by tinted wax to give bronze a quick patina – to pirated DVDs and CDs. It also highlights the dramatic escalation in IP crime fuelled by the Internet, and its profound effect on the creative industries.
One of the Museum displays notes that an estimated 40 million counterfeit Swiss watches are produced each year – twice the number of genuine watches “made in Switzerland” annually. In an apt commentary, the artist Maât used thousands of counterfeit watches seized by the French customs authority and crushed in a hydraulic press to create L’Art dans le Collimateur des Faussaires. The watch debris was set in four blocks of translucent resin, mounted on a base in which a glass niche sheltered two genuine watches. The sculpture – which seeks to contrast true with false, rarity with abundance, quality with shoddiness – was, fittingly, first exhibited at the Museum, which now displays an artist’s model of the work.
2. From the International Medical Products Anti-counterfeiting Taskforce (IMPACT), launched by the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2006.
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