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Checking Out Istanbul's Knockoff Marketplace While It Lasts

As Turkey's relationship with the European Union becomes tighter, adopting its copyright standards is nearly a foregone conclusion. For now, knockoff peddlers are able to do their business more or less in the open, dealing mostly to European tourists.

Photos by the author

Turkey has the second-largest counterfeit market in the world. In 2010 it was measured at $3 billion. Because Turkey is not yet part of the EU, its copyright and trademark laws are surprisingly lax. There's writing on the wall suggesting that this may change soon. Last week, Turkey caught up with the EU's data-protection standards, and as Turkey's relationship with Europe becomes friendlier, adopting its copyright standards—at least on paper—is nearly a foregone conclusion.


For now, though, knockoff peddlers are able to do their business more or less in the open, dealing mostly to European tourists.

Walking through Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar reveals a treasure trove of counterfeit goods: fake luxury watches, poorly stitched designer underwear, plastic headphones labeled "Beats by DJ Eric," and a few boxes of counterfeit Cialis are all available and much more.

I recently caught up with some vendors to find out about their sales technique.

A 22-year-old ring leader and his two compadres stood on a street corner just south of Taksim square, the epicenter of downtown Istanbul. Gaudy necklaces, tchotchke bracelets, and oversize rings were laid out on tables in front of them. The technique consists of yelling at tourists as they pass by.

“Beautiful jewelry, best price.”

Before long, blue and red lights flashed on the horizon, and the oldest of the group signaled to the other two with some head movements that it was time to beat it. They quickly picked up the tables and crab-walked around the corner, hiding in the shadows until the cops passed. I followed them.

The ring leader cobbled together a little bit of English to explain his actions: “I’m too poor for an education. I wanted to do something fun, and I like selling things.”

He looked over his shoulder and saw that the cops were gone. He waved farewell to me and went back to making sales. I resumed my shopping.


One seller nearby was openly selling fake US money—stacks in $1 and $1,000 denominations. The printing quality was a half step above the corner copy shop. This is actually the exception, not the rule.

Turkish fakes are notorious for their surprising quality. Rumors abound of organized crime recruiting ex-engineers or craftsmen from recognizable luxury brands, in order to create copies that are nearly indistinguishable from the originals.

The "quality" shows in the price. Fake watches can run upwards of $300. Some sellers make it a rule of thumb to charge up to 10 percent of the price of the legitimate product.

The owner of one shop with a fake Rolex Sea-Dweller in its window explained what makes Turkish "replicas" so nice compared with cheap Chinese knockoffs.

“Look at the difference—ceramic bezel, sapphire glass, stainless steel, a quality band, Japanese movement, assembled in Turkey,” a seller said. It was a hefty piece that commanded 450 Lira ($225). “In New York, they sell Chinatown stuff. They’re not nice. [Tourists] bring them here. They say, 'Look, I bought this for $100,' but they lose their color because they’re not steel. They yellow.”

I couldn’t help noticing that he wasn’t wearing a watch himself. I asked whether he wanted to own a real brand-name watch one day. “No,” he said while pulling out a genuine luxury watch catalog and pointing at a $40,000 Rolex Cosmograph Daytona.


“Original, from Germany,” he said. “In how many years can you earn this money?” He pointed to a remarkably identical copy sitting in his sprawled-open briefcase. “500 Liras ($250)”.

The appeal of owning a fake became evident to me. To the Average Joe it’s about the experience of luxury, not the actual price tag—if you feel the same wearing a $250 watch as you do wearing a $40,000 one, why bother? All that matters is that Average Joe feels just as good wearing his copy-watch as some Jordan Belfort type feels good wearing the real McCoy.

I asked the store owner, who wouldn’t give me his name, how long he had been in the trade. “Twelve years,” he said. “I had two options: I had to decide to sell drugs or watches. I chose watches.”

When he said drugs, it's likely that he meant the kind that comes from your doctor, not the kind that comes from Colombia—pharmaceuticals are far from immune from counterfeit fever. Sketchy Viagra and Cialis are usually found in spam folders, but in Turkey they’re openly sold in spice markets.

The juxtaposition is rich: Old ladies in burqas do their Sunday shopping as creepy dudes in sweat-stained shirts sell what I can only assume are fake boner pills outside. I waited for 15 minutes to see if anyone actually stopped to look at the pills, but I guess the embarrassment was too much—everyone avoided eye contact with the seller.

I tried to chat with one seller, but he wasn’t too talkative. He wouldn’t say where he sourced the pills from, but insisted that they were “top-notch genuine.” He tried to palm off a napkin full of heart-shaped pills to me, but I passed, fearing my heart could explode if I took them.


As I handed the pills back, a man standing at the stall next door showed off the flashlight—or rather a stun gun disguised as a flashlight—that he was selling. An arc of blue electricity reflected off the smirking face of the pill-pusher. I didn't buy one.

I reached out to Eli Lilly and Company, the maker of Cialis, and Pfizer, the maker of Viagra, to talk about the counterfeit market.

What Celeste Stanley, Lilly’s communications manager, told me by email discouraged me from buying phony Cialis, because it exists outside the "safety net" of Eli Lilly's quality standards. Still, she didn't dismiss the potential efficacy of the sketchy pills outright. “Counterfeit drugs are manufactured outside of that safety net, potentially resulting in products that may be contaminated," she began. Istanbul's pills might also "contain the wrong active ingredients, harmful ingredients, or no active ingredients, therefore compromising the drug’s safety and efficacy.”

Meanwhile Steven Danehy, senior manager of corporate media relations at Pfizer, provided a laundry list of nefarious ingredients that he says have, for some strange reason, been mixed into the phony Viagra: “Pesticides (boric acid), rat poison, brick dust, leaded highway paint, commercial grade paint, floor polish, cartridge ink, plaster, and wallboard" were all apparently found in the same types of pills slung on Istanbul’s streets.

Thanks to either Turkey's closer relationship with Europe or the lobbying efforts of the pharmaceutical industry, Turkey is cracking down. Daheny said that in 2009 "1,000 Turkish police simultaneously raided 146 locations in 13 cities, made more than 100 arrests, and seized 650,000 counterfeit Viagra tablets. It was estimated that at least 80 percent of counterfeit Viagra business in Turkey was dismantled as a result of those actions.”

In contrast with the picture of law enforcement Danehy painted, I witnessed a vibrant market for counterfeiters. On my venture into Istanbul I saw cops standing next to sellers, not batting an eye.

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