The label on the 41-foot cargo container at the suburban Boston truck terminal was clear: a shipment of porcelain from Taipei to a jewelry company in Providence, R.I.
It did indeed contain boxes of porcelain - on top. When US customs agents dug beneath the surface on Dec. 7, however, they found what they were seeking: 6,000 imitation Cabbage Patch dolls, some of them reeking of kerosene from the dirty rags used as stuffing. Two days before, agents had seized 5,000 of the bogus dolls in Detroit; a week later, they picked up 20,000 more in a New York raid.
The fakes - look-alikes of those puffy-featured dolls that stampeded into the Christmas market last year and are in hot demand again this time - sprang up in response to that oldest of economic pressures: scarcity. Never mind that Coleco Industries, the licensed manufacturer of plastic Cabbage Patch dolls, has already shipped out 20 million to retailers this year, destined to sell for $30 to $40 each. The fact is that retailers can't get enough of them.
And that's a subject to make the counterfeiters' tacky little hearts go pit-a-pat: an easily reproduced, easily shipped product selling for inordinate prices in a scarce market. Small wonder they have leaped into the fray - cranking out fake dolls for as little as $3 each in Taiwan, some of them sprayed with fungicides to keep them from mildewing during their journey to market. So industrious have these fakers become, in fact, that last week the Taiwan Toy Manufacturers' Association had to blacklist, not one or two, but 47 local firms for exporting bogus dolls to the United States.
But that, as it were, is just the tip of the hoaxberg.
These days, counterfeiters are busily churning out everything from Rolex watches and Jordache jeans to Apple computers and robot toys. Nor is it all harmless: Phony ''high strength'' bolts have been supplied to the aerospace industry (with some tragic results), while sham parts are making inroads into the auto repair business. Estimates put the economic cost to the US at perhaps 200,000 jobs and $8 billion a year in lost sales. Of that amount, customs agents have managed to seize only some $40 million worth of counterfeit goods in the last two years.
Why this upsurge of the ersatz? Partly because it's increasingly easy to do. Computer-linked machinery can produce close copies of complex parts. Cheap third-world labor, assembling those faked parts, can turn out look-alikes for a fraction of the cost of the real thing. Overstretched customs agents can be deceived. And even if they catch the importers sham-handed, they can legally do little more than take away the spurious goods - although federal legislation has been proposed that would slap on stiff fines and prison terms.
But that's only part of the reason. It's also true that the market for goods is shifting its focus (at least in the industrial world) from selling things to selling ideas. The target of the counterfeiter, after all, isn't simply a watch or a computer: It's the design incorporated in the thing. In earlier ages, jeans were jeans and dolls were dolls - and people bought them as such. Today's consumers are buying the design - and want the designer's name and logo prominently displayed to prove it. What's being stolen is ideas - which are easily portable and easily reproduced.
And that suggests still another dimension to the problem. At issue are not only the Taiwanese, or the technology, or the trends of history. At issue are our own petty vanities. If we're subject to a flood of counterfeits, it may be partly because today's con artists, like their brethren through the centuries, are simply playing upon our failings.
It's no crime to respect and cherish excellent design - to know it when we see it, to keep up to date with it, and to be willing to support a community of fine designers to produce it. It is a failing, however, to replace a flair for style with a lust for faddishness, or a love of grace with a longing to impress. It is equally a failing to ignore the distinctions between (for example) excellence and mediocrity or beauty and ugliness - or between the real and the fake. And it is certainly a failing to believe, despite mountains of evidence to the contrary, that we can purchase real quality at unbelievably low prices. After all, what could make counterfeiters happier than consumers who want to show off the costliest and most logo-laden items, who don't seem capable of discerning between the genuine and the phony, and who idolize bargains?
Legislation, bilateral trade agreements, a shift in economic climate - these things can moderate the present influx of counterfeit goods. In the end, however , the best defense against the counterfeiter is the clear thinking of the individual consumer.