Police Increase Estimated Market Value of Counterfeit Designer Apparel and Jewelry Seizure in Palm Beach to $3.4 Million

After initially estimating the market value of the counterfeit designer goods that were seized in two Palm Beach boutiques was nearly $2 million, investigators have increased that figure to $3.4 million.

Last month Olena Austin, owner of Blesk Jewelry, which has two locations in Palm Beach including one on tony Worth Avenue, was arrested and charged with one count of selling or offering to sell counterfeit goods of $20,000 or more in value. The 51-year-old was later released on a $50,000 bond.

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Knockoffs of Pucci, Chanel, Van Cleef & Arpels, Tiffany & Co., Rolex, Versace and Bottega Veneta apparel and jewelry were being sold at both Blesk stores, according to investigators. Two PBPD undercover detectives each purchased a counterfeit item at one of the Blesk locations. Investigators said Thursday that now approximately 850 items had been seized — about 50 more than were initially estimated.

As reported in an interview last week, PBPD captain William Rothrock said the estimated market value could be higher — as it turned out to be — due to further authentication that was pending. Asked about the authentication process Thursday, he said, “We use a third-party expert to identify suspected counterfeit merchandise, seized the items, then had every single item evaluated by brand representatives to obtain affidavits on authenticity and value.”

After sharing the updated figure of more than $3.4 million, Rothrock said Monday that the investigation is ongoing and could lead to additional people facing charges. He declined further comment. A redacted probable cause affidavit referenced how representatives from Pucci and Chanel had verified that certain items that had been purchased at Blesk were fake.

Austin and representatives at Blesk have not acknowledged media requests.

The eight-month investigation was put in motion last fall, after the Federal Bureau of Investigation received a tip. FBI officials then turned it over to the PBPD. In an interview with WWD last week Rothrock said,  “It seems the salespersons or the owner maybe would vet customers before they would show them or attempt to sell them those pieces of [counterfeit] merchandise. It appeared that with a repeat customer or with a more lengthy conversation about some of the items that the option of being able to purchase something that was not on display would come up,” he said.

The Palm Beach Police Department’s Organized Crime, Vice and Narcotics Unit dubbed the investigation “Operation Worth-Less.” Before buying a pair of Chanel’s inspired earrings with interlocking “Cs” at the Worth Avenue store last month, an undercover detective was told by a store employee that the items in the store were “heavily influenced” designs, but not authentic, according to the affidavit. A Chanel spokeswoman said the company had no comment at this time about the investigation.

As for the counterfeiting allegations, Frank Steinhart, president of the Worth Avenue Association, which includes more than 100 retailers among its members, said, “It’s very sad that the situation is happening.”

He continued, “It was very, very disturbing to have that [alleged] type of retailer on the island. Also, it was great that the police department took the actions that they did with the investigation to stop it.”

Having been with the association for more than 15 years, he said he was not aware of any similar incidents in Palm Beach. Steinhart said he does not know Blesk’s owner Austin. “I am not very familiar with the store. I know they have two locations. I really have never visited [either one.] There are a lot of vintage stores in Palm Beach. Maybe when I walked by, I thought it was that type of establishment,” Steinhart said.

For more than 100 years, Worth Avenue has been an established destination for high-end shopping, having attracted such designer tenants as Gucci, Valentino and Saks Fifth Avenue.

Steinhart, whose full-time job is overseeing production for Stubbs & Wootton, which has a Palm Beach store, is hoping the Blesk incident does not have an impact on Worth Avenue shopping. “People need to respect buying luxury from the proper source. There are a lot of businesses and whoever is going to buy luxury knows to go to the right source,” he said.

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