River Oaks Rip-offs

With counterfeit goods, there's a wealth of opportunity

From their independently operated stalls inside the warehouse-sized Market Place Antiques in West Houston, dealers display wares reflecting down-home tradition and relics of history.

Old dining room sets vie for attention with out-of-print books and even collectible John F. Kennedy campaign buttons. From her nearby booth, Rose Knippenberg doesn't fear that competition, whose wares are geared toward customers' memories of the past. She caters to clients very much interested in the material here and now.

However, Knippenberg admits in her lilting British accent that her brand of merchandising makes her nervous. The small, middle-aged woman has a sweet face and long, dark hair. She smiles warmly, even as she mentions, "I don't want to go to jail."

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With that introduction, Knippenberg reaches under her table adorned with antique printing blocks for sale. She pulls out a large light blue Tupperware container packed with purses and scarves. They sport the labels and emblems of Chanel and other exclusive accessory designers.

Her voice grows excited as she describes the plushness of a Chanel evening bag and its lambskin lining, the softness of the scarves' silk and the authenticity of her products. And especially the prices.

A Chanel scarf, complete with monogram, retails for about $100 at Neiman-Marcus in the Galleria, the only authorized outlet in the area. Knippenberg offers it for $25. Chanel purses, which start at about $1,300 at Neiman's, are available here for $100 plus tax.

On this day, the shopper, a Houston Press reporter, settles on the evening bag. Knippenberg sends her away with a genuine peck of a kiss on the cheek -- and a "Chanel" purse that is patently counterfeit.

In trying to knock out the knockoff market for designer goods, trademark enforcers express amazement at the latest trend in selling these bogus wares.

Investigators readily admit that it is still not uncommon to see such commodities offered at flea markets and small resale stores across Houston. But in recent years, toughened laws, greater public awareness and police raids have largely stopped retailers who had openly sold counterfeit merchandise.

However, Knippenberg and a number of other independent sellers are not of that same genre of merchants. Recent investigations by law enforcement authorities and private investigators have exposed a relatively widespread and lucrative underground network for counterfeit products -- one dominated by upper-crust sellers who are usually women.

Areas of authentic wealth, even Memorial and River Oaks, are the bases of operation for vending these bogus goods. Some residents of these tony enclaves operate solely out of the trunks of their luxury autos, at "house parties" with exclusive invitation lists or by special appointment.

Using their impressive homes as cover, they are exploiting a market of materialistic wannabes hoping to copy well-to-do lifestyles at budget prices.

"I can understand if the people selling these products were flea-market operators," says private investigator and retired FBI agent Richard Miller. "That doesn't make it right, but I understand when someone is trying to make a buck. But rich River Oaks women? There is no excuse. Here are River Oaks people who have money."

Prestigious companies that became the favorite targets for counterfeiters have banded together with law enforcement and civil courts to battle an industry that is estimated to net millions of dollars annually in the Houston area. They have filed lawsuits and charges and have used private investigators in cities across the nation to combat the counterfeit trade.

Miller says that, despite two recent criminal cases targeting merchants of bogus items in Houston, the underground network continues to flourish. That particularly holds true in Texas, the land of the budding socialites, some who blend big hair with big airs.

"Houston and Dallas have become a hotbed for this sort of thing," Miller says.

After being contacted by the likes of Chanel, Miller says he began to see a pattern in the industry of counterfeit merchandise. Posing as a couple looking for cheap brand-name items, Miller and partner Georgia McKernon uncovered "a network of rich women from River Oaks" who set up "Tupperwarelike" parties for those wishing to buy counterfeit jewelry, watches, purses and clothing. They found that a variety of merchants, most from the upper economic status, had products shipped from counterfeit factories in New York.

Investigators made a primary breakthrough last June when they busted Barbara Markman, 52, for violations of the relatively new criminal law protecting trade names. A Chanel spokesman says Markman was dealing "big-time" in counterfeit Chanel products by selling through merchandising parties, some of them hosted in River Oaks.

Police raided Markman's home, valued on the tax rolls at $550,000, and seized counterfeit goods. In a plea bargain, Markman gained probation in exchange for cooperating with investigators by turning over three other dealers in counterfeit goods.

Markman declined to discuss her case with the Press and even denied knowing anything about selling knockoff goods.

"It is hard to track [people such as Markman] down since it is so far underground," says Robin Gruber, a New York attorney for Chanel. "She was doing it big-time. She was a big-time lady."

The law enforcement probe widened after that case. Miller and McKernon soon crashed a River Oaks-area party where the goods were being sold. They seized more than $20,000 in counterfeit merchandise and arrested Robert "Christopher" Phillips, whose trial is pending.

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