The Greatest “Skin” Game in the World
Have you a “phoney" fur in your home? The chances are that you have. This article will tell you about, some who have been fooled, and you can be numbered hereafter among the wise ones.
THE telephone rang sharply in the storage department of the Arctic Fur Company and was answered by the floor manager. A woman’s voice greeted him. “This is Mrs. Smith speaking. I have just received your storage bill for the two leopard rugs I sent you, and I am sure you have made some mistake.”
“In what way, Mrs. Smith?”
“You have valued them at only twenty-five dollars each, when I actually paid $150 for them.”
“We are very sorry—but if you will call at our office we will explain it to you.”
The following morning Mrs. Smith was at the store, asking for the manager.
“It is a stupid mistake, Mr. Hyde,” she exclaimed, waving the storage receipt before the furrier’s eyes, “and most annoying!”
“Just a moment, Mrs. Smith . . . I’ve taken the liberty of ripping the lining from one of your leopard rugs. I have the skin here.”
In the next few minutes the astounded Mrs. Smith, who prided herself upon her judgment of values, was shown the myriad seamings on the leather side of her precious rugs, and was told how she had been swindled.
“Your rugs, madam,” concluded the manager, “are made of cuttings usually sold on the East Side for a dollar a pound.”
The fur floor-rug swindle is an old game, usually accompanied by a hard-luck story.
It is estimated that twenty-five per cent, of the fur rugs in North American homes have been bought from a door-to-door peddler who offered the prospective buyer “the chance of a lifetime,” and while all of them are not made of pieces, such as those bought by Mrs. Smith, they seldom are worth anything like the price paid for them.
Two Types of Swindlers
THE business, which is highly specialized, has been divided into two distinct classes, one dealing in cheap rugs made of pieces, sewn on a goat machine, and the other selling genuine rugs, made from almost perfect skins, but at a high price.
The first type of rug is handled by a cheap peddler who recites a story of misfortune, or of skins smuggled in from Germany or Russia; and when he spreads upon the floor an attractive rug of Siberian bear, how is the householder to know that the Siberian “bear” was born in a Montreal or Brooklyn slum, and is made of dyed wallaby?
The second and more expensive rugs, made of genuine fur, are handled by a much superior type of salesman. Demanding prices which range from seventyfive dollars for a mountain lion to $1,000 for a Manchurian tiger, he must have personality and a convincingly foreign appearance and accent. His plans often are complicated and call for days of preparation. Such a man operated recently in a large Eastern Canadian city.
Arriving in the slack season when a stranger is likely to attract notice he engaged the most expensive room in the best hotel in the place, hired a luxurious motor car and, posing as a Spanish nobleman or Russian prince, proceeded to get acquainted. The lure of a title is irresistible and soon, by judicious conduct and conversation, the distinguished foreigner became socially well-established. Then, in the homes at which he was received, he dropped casual remarks about the misfortunes of an old friend—a
The men engaged in this trade generally are foreigners who prey upon gullibility, and the continent, from coast to coast, is dotted with these doorbellringing furriers.
count—who, through political upheavals in his native land, had sought refuge in Canada with his most valuable possessions; these he had been forced to sell, piece by piece, until nothing remained but a collection of magnificent furs of exceptional size and quality.
After skilfully capturing the interest and arousing the desire of his new friends, the stranger promised to essay the difficult task of persuading the count to part with a few of his skins. After several days of waiting and the “exchange” of numerous telegrams he was able to announce his success, gave a dinner party to celebrate it, and afterward displayed to his interested guests a
collection of really fine rugs.
His floor was covered with the pelts of lions, tawny-coated and fuzzymaned, gigantic, flat-haired black and gold tigers from Bengal, paler-hued ones from China, and long-furred twelve-foot monsters from Manchuria; bears from Alaska, silver-tipped and heavy-furred; polar bears, snow-white and with four-inch amber claws; leopards from Somaliland, and timber wolves, all blue or white, seven feet from tip to tip and with twenty-seven inch tails. No price tags were exhibited, of course, but the clever host knew just how much each guest was good for.
In the morning he cashed fifteen checks aggregating $7,300, a fair stroke of business, for he had bought the skins from a Montreal furrier—the poor count—for $482.
Another man who worked the game with much the same stage settings sold between $15,000 and $20,000 worth of floor rugs. His reason for the moderate (?) prices he asked was that his government had sent him the furs to
exhibit in Canada and then in the United States, but he found that, to enter them through the customs of the latter country, he would have to pay a duty of fifty per cent. Rather than do that he would dispose of them here.
A Calculating Crook
THIS enterprising gentleman did not halt with the disposal of his floor rugs, however, but kept onjthe lookout for further business. It came. Lady White, the wife of one of the provincial legislators, had been shopping for sables. She had been unable to secure exactly what she required, although one of the leading furriers in the city had two, the only drawback being that they were a little too light.
This news interested the schemer, who heard it through one of his new-made friends. He managed to intimate to the lady—through an innocent third person—that it might be possible for him to obtain two wonderful Crown sables—rare skins that once had been presented to the Czar of Russia but which had mysteriously disappeared for a number of years.
A day or two later he sauntered into the store of the leading furrier, faultlesslydressed, with black-rimmed monocle and snake-wood cane, and the company’s star salesman hastened to meet him. The Russian haughtily inquired for sables— Russian sables, large in size, dark, and silver-haired. The salesman showed him a clutch of dressed sables. The customer was impatient.
“No, no, man!—not these! I want raw skins—your best!”
Immediately the salesman identified him as an expert, for not one layman in a thousand can distinguish between raw and dressed sables. He promptly produced matched pairs of raw sables in their little blue bags. The distinguished buyer passed his fingers through the fat little treasures.
“I want something better than these,” he said, “—larger skins, flecked with silver near the rump, and with all four feet. Perhaps you have something of the sort tucked
The salesman had two; he had shown them to LadyWhite a few days before without success—so he lost no time in laying them out on the little velvet table. The customer fingered them indifferently. They were not exactly what he wanted. Eventually he would require twelve skins of particularly good quality, and he had thought to secure two for now, but—“What is their price?” he asked languidly.
After hasty consultation with the manager of the store, in which the prospect of selling ten more received due consideration, the salesman returned.
“Six hundred dollars is our regular price,” said he, “but as there is a possibility that you will require a quantity we can offer them to you at $500 a skin.”
The Russian flicked open a monogrammed cigarette case.
“Very well, then—I’ll take them, on condition that if the Baroness does not like them you will take them back.” This was satisfactory and the Russian left the store. Several days later, over an afternoon cup of tea, he confided to the eager Lady White that the Emperor’s sables were in his apartment. The following afternoon, accompanied by her husband, she visited the Baron and watched him remove impressive-looking, red-sealed foreign labels from a heavily wrapped parcel.
The stage was set; the light from the candelabra was just right; his guests’ chairs, to discourage too close examination, had been flanked by spindly, small-based vases, and the table to which the lady turned was bathed in a soft, subdued glow. The Baron paused for a dramatic second, then laid the pelts reverently upon the table.
“There, my friends,” said he, simply, “are two Crown sables the equal of which cannot be found in North America.”
The sables were bought, of course, and the pair left the apartment feeling particularly favored in being permitted to pay only $2,000 for the pair.
Most well-established furriers in Canada, large and small, are scrupulously honest and offer to their customers good furs under their proper identity; but a number of foreign-born “experts” drift to this Dominion yearly, to guarantee the continuance of what might be called the greatest skin game in the world. To these men any game is fair game, and every sale good business. Picking up a
■dozen skins here and there hey scout for their victims.
"VJUTRIA skins miraculously become beaver overnight, ’ grey-dyed rabbits assume the name—and value— of rare chinchillas, while North Shore martens become .fine Russian sables. The cheaper shops are full of furs that have been made up to represent some pelt—and some of them are exceptionally clever. The more beautiful furs have been imitated even more accurately than those of poorer quality. By dyeing an ordinary fox taupy-black .and “cementing” a lot of white badger hairs throughout the fur a practiced dyer and pointer will produce a silver fox so superlative that even an expert will have difficulty in detecting it. An expert pointer charges twelve dollars to point a single skin. Up to a few years ago such skins were pointed with white hairs before being manufactured for use, but now the better ones are done only after the ■skin has been fashioned into a stole.
A sudden demand for one kind of fur brings a flood of imitations in its wake. When caracul first became popular the genuine thing only was sold, but before the season was ■out coats of slink lambs, Mongolian lambs, kid crosses and ■astrakhan appeared on the market labelled as caracul. Even to-day not more than fifty furriers in North America are selling genuine caracul as the Leipsig trade first understood it; but thousands of the newer furriers are selling slink and Mongolian lamb coats in the honest belief that they are real caracul.
In 1867, the year Alaska was bought from Russia by the United States, the right to kill Alaska seals on the islands was leased to an English company. To create a market this concern spent $100,000 in advertising the beauty of seal coats. The seal has never receded from the position thus created for it, but when prices soared people turned to other fur. Then some clever furrier threw a ■seore of muskrats into the sealing machine and the deed was done. To-day many a seal-dyed muskrat is glibly sold as genuine Alaska seal.
When it was found that the seal-dyed muskrat—Hudson seal it is called—wore better than real Alaska, never faded, and seldom matted, genuine seals were neglected while raw muskrats suitable for sealing rose to five •dollars a pelt. The tail was overtaking the dog, and Hudson seal coats became almost as costly as the furs they had been produced to imitate. Then, in 1921, when cheap Australian opossum glutted the market, “Hudson seal” coats appeared in the larger cities at one-half the prevailing market price for Hudson seal. They were Australian opossums clipped and dyed-to resemble the Hudson seal.
From the barren wastes of the Arctic and the silent forests of the fur country come raw beaver skins that the guileless Eskimo or Indian has dragged through sand to give them weight; pale martens that have been smoked over a balsam fire until the lemon yellow of a twentydollar fur has become the smoke-grey oí a hundred dollar Russian; black domestic cats that have been stretched and dried on a fisher frame.
The white trapper, too, finds a ready market in the businessman on a holiday in the bush, and who wants furs right from the source. The wilderness psychologist capitalizes this little weakness and sells his visitor a couple of half-season mink for a stole, and sufficient beaver skins—that do not match—for a coat. He overcharges twenty-five per cent., but the customer is happy—he is buying from a trapper.
An old French North Shore salmonfisher made many city friends through his genial nature; some of them took advantage of this and tried to buy the coveted North Shore martens at trappers’ prices. Too busy fishing to trap, the ingenious old gentleman wired to Quebec for a selection of raw martens.
The writer saw him sell a Boston tourist seventy-five of these, each for ten dollars more than the market price in Boston.
The honest furrier is forced to wage unceasing war against the unscrupulous methods of the dishonest dealer, for so many people have been victimized that the average citizen enters an unknown fur store with a feeling almost of instinctive distrust.
Recently a little bride wished a short, twenty-nine-inch coatee of Australian opossum and was offered one for $385 by a reputable furrier of her home city. The little lady laughed at the price, and on a visit to a neighboring city bought one for fifty dollars. Some time later, the sleeve needed repairing so she carried it to her local furrier. After examining the rip the furrier shook his head.
“I am sorry, Mrs. Sparks, but I can’t repair this,” he said.
“What do you mean?” 'the little lady asked. “It only needs to be sewn!”
“No, Mrs. Sparks,” the furrier replied, “your opossum coat isn’t sewn—it’s stuck; the skins are burnt, and it isn’t opossum at all, but two dollars’ worth of dyed rabbit.”
The fur business has changed mightily in the past few years and some furs that used to be considered inferior now are classed among the most desirable. Mongolian lambs, formerly used for the cheapest of children’s furs and which could be bought for seventy-five cents a skin, are christened caracul and valued at about five dollars a pelt, while grey creamer lambs that could be selected at fifty cents to a dollar a skin are now almost as scarce as good broadtails. Australian grey opossums at which the children of the ’90’s used to turn up their little noses are matched into a coat and called chinchilla-opossum at $600 a throw. Siberian grey squirrels, once considered only suitable for linings, now are worth two to three dollars a skin and cost $1200 when made into a long coat.
Women demanded warmth and durability in the old days, which meant fur coats with heavy leather and board-stiff linings, and many a beaver coat weighed twenty-five pounds. Things alter, though, and durability seems to be the last thing considered by the flapper of to-day. Pliability, softness and lightness are essential to please the modern woman, and she does not care if leathers are fleshed down to paper thinness, and linings reduced to flimsy georgettes, crepes and crepe de chines. This is why the heavy-leathered furs like beaver, Persian lamb, otter and muskrat have yielded place to mole, squirrel, caracul and ermine.
The high value of furs has attracted the eyes of professional thieves, and in addition to burglar alarms and theft insurance many big furriers take added and expensive precautions against loss. But the clever up-to-date fur
lifter has a number of tricks in his bag, and once the furs are out of the store they seldom are recovered.
A week before Christmas, 1923, a well-dressed woman carrying a lap dog under her arm stepped out of a large limousine into a fur store and asked to see a real seal coat.
An hour later the woman walked out of the elevator and had almost reached the street door when the floorwalker spied her.
“Ah, madam,” he beamed, observing the beautiful seal dolman she was wearing, “you have made a beautiful choice!” “Thank you,” smiled the lady as she slipped through the door, “I think I have.”
Late in the afternoon the floorwalker passed the head of the fur department.
“That was a lovely seal you sold this morning,” he remarked.
The fur man shook his head.
“We haven’t sold a real seal in a week,” he growled.
“Didn’t you sell one this morning to a woman with a poodle under her arm—a dolman with a Russian sable collar? She wore it out.”
The woman had strolled through the furs, telling salespeople she was waiting for her husband then, when their attentions were diverted, donned the $1,800 real seal and walked calmly off with it.
A certain Canadian furrier was tremendously proud of a broadtail model coat w'hich he had just completed. Only the choicest Leipsig-dyed pelts had been used and, trimmed with the finest of Bolivia chinchillas, it was a magnificent wrap. A. special showcase had been built for its display in a little alcove between two larger cases and it was understood among the staff that it was to be shown only to especially favored customers.
For two weeks that prize model remained in its case;
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then suddenly it disappeared. It had been in the case at ten o’clock that morning, for the salesman had exhibited it through the glass to a prospective customer.
The police of every town and city in Eastern Canada and the United States were notified'and given photographs of the garment, but for two months nothing developed. Then came a letter from the United States Customs at Washington, asking that a man be sent to that city to identify a fur coat which had been seized at the border. It was the broadtail coat.
How it had been stolen was not revealed for several months. But an obscure revival meeting somewhere on the Pacific coast was responsible for the explanation. A crook of international reputation “got religion” and confessed to a number of big robberies in which he had been implicated—the broadtail coat job among them.
After the presence of the coat had been brought to his notice he visited the store with a woman accomplice and made mental note of the interior arrangements. A few days later, dressed as an electrician,
he appeared with a ladder outside the store and began tinkering with the wires on the building.
All day he worked, level with the second floor and in plain sight of the clerks. Toward noon of the second day he coolly opened the window that lighted the little alcove, threw his leg over the sill and worked at some wires—still on the outside —but his eyes almost constantly were on the selling floor. Then, seizing a moment when no one was near, he stepped inside, unlocked the door of the case with a skeleton key, lifted the garment off the form with a single sweep of his arm and closed and locked the door. He then crushed the coat into his tool bag, slid down the ladder, and into a waiting motor car.
Then there was the case of a woman in an Eastern city some years ago, who stole a Russian sable neckpiece. Having located her after a long search the sleuths were waiting to catch her with the goods when, eluding them, she stepped into the same store and lifted the muff to match—but that, as the saying goes, is another story