The Old Switcheroo

The Old Switcheroo

People find antique and classic cars to be a fun past-time and popular investment. However, the number of fake cars entering the lucrative market of classic cars has jumped drastically. TÜV Rheinland is taking the battle to the streets, so to speak.

Wolfgang Beltracchi is likely the most famous German forger in the world of art. He would make new paintings applying the style of great artists like Max Ernst, Max Pechstein and Henri Matisse. One of his forgeries ‘Rotes Bild mit Pferden’ (Red Picture with Horses), which was assumed to be an artwork by Heinrich Campendonk, sold for 2.9 million. Although Beltracchi had little to do with classic cars, Sebastian Hoffmann, head of the Classic Competence department at the TÜV Rheinland subsidiary FSP, often mentions art forgeries in general and especially this forger’s work when he describes his own job. He and business partner Fabian Ebrecht are tasked with unmasking counterfeit classic cars using a variety of techniques. Hoffmann completed training in vehicle restoration. “Many methods and processes from our job remind me of the art scene,” he explains. “Antique cars can be restored a few times in their life, which means that changes to the original structure have been made – quite legally. A fact that makes it nearly impossible to determine whether one is a fake or not. You need to peer deep into the material to know for sure.”

For more than a year, the optical magnetic resonance technique has been helping Hoffmann and his team to detect when a VIN has been modified. They are the first to use this technology for classic cars. The metal car body changes each time the VIN is modified, be it by sanding, cutting out or filling in with tin. These classic car detectives use a powerful magnetic field that penetrates deep into the substructure of the material, making it visible on a notebook computer using a reader and revealing the details of the specific area on the vehicle. “We can detect irregularities in the material structure that may indicate a car has been counterfeited.” Hoffmann continues, “Changes to numbers and letters in the metal also come to light, such as when a counterfeiter changes a 6 to a 9 or a 4 to a 5 by using a punching technique.” The technical equipment, including the notebook computer, fits easily in a small suitcase, enabling non-destructive, full-spectrum checks to be performed quickly on site. Norbert Schroeder, head of Competence Center Classic Cars at TÜV Rheinland, is also aware of the growing market for fake classic cars. He reveals, “Counterfeiters make a lot of money on the often exorbitantly high estimates for the treasured classic cars and they manipulate the vehicles to turn a quick profit. Fakes are so widespread that new cases crop up in Germany nearly on a daily basis.” Criminal organizations can, for example, turn a 1973 Porsche F model (type T, E, or S) into a rare Carrera 2.7 RS in their high-tech garages. The exterior of the vehicles may look the same, but aficionados are willing to pay a premium for these specific series. A Carrera RS, for example, can go for €1 million Euros. More often than not, the original copy of the motor vehicle registration certificates for high-end models are in circulation without the vehicle. The dishonest car fanatics manipulate the VIN on the car, boosting its value substantially. Sometimes the entire vehicle is replicated to match the original certificate, suddenly making it worth many more thousands of euros. Classic cars are ‘discovered’ under a tarpaulin in the barn, similar to the scam with forged paintings, and are touted as a long-lost original.

Techniques from forensic science

Magnetic resonance measurements were initially used in forensic investigations and to check gun serial numbers in Latvia where Hoffmann and Ebrecht saw it in use at a company. They were the first to try it out on vehicles, and it worked out well. However, if counterfeiters remove a piece of the trunk’s base with the original VIN of a Carrera RS and install it in a Porsche 911, the engraved number and depth will correspond to the original model, making it more difficult to prove that the car is a fake. For this reason, FSP also relies on other methods. A spectral analysis can determine the age of the material, X-rays can expose the metal car body’s substructure, and measurements of the carbon content can provide information on changes. The expert advises potential buyers to meticulously check the classic car they have been eyeing as these cars are increasing in popularity as an investment. Forgeries aren’t only hanging on the living room wall, sometimes they’re parked in the garage, as well.

Picture credits: TÜV Rheinland

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