Alleged “fake“ Mercedes 300SL ignites million-dollar scandal

The Fantasy Yellow 300 SL pictured here, different from the Kienle car in question, appeared at Mecum's Monterey 2021 auction. Mecum

Allegations of fraud are rare in the world of high-end collector cars. When such claims do happen, they reverberate like a shockwave through the comparatively small community. The implications on people, restoration shops, and cars at the center of the accusation can be lasting. At the end of May, noted Mercedes-Benz restorer Kienle Automobiltechnik became the focus of an investigation by German authorities, who suspect the company created a duplicate vehicle using the chassis number of a car that had not come to market in decades.

The car that prompted the scrutiny is a 1961 Mercedes-Benz 300SL roadster that hasn’t been registered in 50 years. The car, a disc-brake example painted in Fantasiegelb (Fantasy Yellow), was featured in the 1961 Geneva Motor Show and repainted red shortly thereafter. It recently sold for €1.6 million ($1.74 million USD). When the new owner went to register the car in Germany, they discovered that another 300SL was already registered with that chassis number—a Fantasy Yellow example sold through Kienle in 2019.

1961 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster Fantasy Yellow emblem

The joint press release from the offices of the public prosecutor and the Baden-Württemberg State Criminal Police states that Kienle’s private residences and headquarters were searched, extensive evidence recovered, and that the investigation is ongoing. Meanwhile, Kienle has issued its own press release, asserting that the suspect car was never in its facility for the purposes of restoration. Rather, Kienle states, the car was in its custody because Kienle was serving as broker in the transaction. (The release also recommends buyers seek an expert report that identifies potential counterfeits, though no such report was ordered in this instance.) Kienle says it intends to pursue legal action against those who brought the allegations.

Those with longstanding involvement in the classic Mercedes-Benz world were shocked by the news: “It was very surprising to hear Kienle’s name come up in something like this,” said Canada-based Rudi von Koniczek, himself a leader in the 300SL restoration world. “There are instances where people have built a fraudulent car and sold it as the real article. That’s criminal—that’s wrong. But for Kienle brokering the sale, that’s stepping in shit and not knowing it. I feel for him and his employees. I think Kienle was involved in unfortunate circumstances, and that can happen to anyone.”

The London Concours 1960 Mercedes-Benz 300SL Roadster duplicate fake mercedes
John Keeble/Getty Images

When authorities seek to find the truth amid cars claiming the same identity, they often reveal a tangle of allegations and assertions of what really transpired. Collectors are reminded in these instances of the perils surrounding high-dollar purchases. Mistakes happen, but when the potential exists for a big payday, there exists strong motivation to knowingly create a counterfeit car.

“Chassis numbers that no one has seen in years are fertile ground for the criminal mind,” said appraiser and Hagerty Price Guide publisher Dave Kinney. “There will always be an element that will go to great lengths to make a fake designer purse, watch, or Rembrandt. Cars present their own level of complexity, not just for the myriad parts involved but also because of serial numbers. With every model, there will always be a few ‘missing’—those [cars] that have been wrecked beyond repair, those that were secreted away in a quiet place, and those sent to off-the-radar countries.”

What’s a buyer to do? Recourse for consummated deals of cars that are later discovered to be fakes can prove challenging, to say the least. It’s best to perform as much diligence as possible on the front end. If buying from a broker, confirm what research they have done on the vehicle. Then, since there’s always a chance that people can be fooled, the best safeguard (as Kienle suggested in its press release) is to hire an expert. This can be an extensive, expensive process, but the upfront cost is justifiable given the peace of mind it offers: that your car won’t be recast as a replica and devalued by evidence that surfaces in the future.

Such experts—whether a reputable restoration shop, a qualified marque historian, or even Mercedes Classic itself—pore over available documentation and the car itself in forensic detail. Koniczek has performed such services for clients. “We examine bolt types and sizes, types of weld, the fonts and positioning of the stampings,” he said. Koniczek has even examined the thickness of the metal on various points of the car in pursuit of answers. Counterfeiters can get close, but minute variables tend to come to light in such inspections. Still, nothing is guaranteed.

The collector car world will watch as the Kienle case unfolds in Germany; authorities are not only investigating the 300SL sold in 2019 but also looking for evidence of other duplicates in the shop’s history. In the meantime, what’s transpired is both a cautionary tale and an unwelcome mark on restoration shops. For that reason, Koniczek contends, respected players have little reason to cut corners. “Those who are in the business for a long time have too much to lose. The guys who do it deliberately, they’re short-lived,” said Koniczek. “What’re they accomplishing? They’re putting a blight on every restorer. Why not just play it straight?”




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    I realize we all collect for different reasons, but the best defense against this sort of thing is to buy the car because you like it, and pay in accordance with how much you like it. If you really like 300SLs, and the car does all of the things for you that you really like about 300SLs, you will probably be a bit cheesed off if you find out it’s fake… but probably only a little

    I looked at a big block Corvette suspecting there was some level of likelihood that it may be a clone. I looked at the VIN and confirmed it… and bought it anyway. Great car, no regrets. Of course I didn’t pay anywhere near 2 mil for it

    This reminds me of the Jerry Seinfeld Porsche saga. I guess after 50-60 years or so, what with wrecks, scrappage, and used-parts dealings, there’s a pool of opportunity is someone wants to create or re-create a car. Add in big money, and away we go…
    Probably the best way to infer authenticity on a duplicate/fake is to have a respected marque specialist somehow involved in the sale, but that specialist really needs to examine the car before being dragged into the scheme. If he/she is complicit, that’s the end of their reputation, and likely, business. Right ?

    I find it odd that they immediately accused the resto shop of forgery. What if the one they sold is/was the authentic and the one that stirred up the whole mess is the counterfeit? I think that the ultimate answer lies in identifying the fake, then following the paper trail. Perhaps they did forge, perhaps they simply brokered a deal that happened to be a forgery and are guiltless of the forging, perhaps the person for whom they brokered the deal was themselves deceived and thought the car they were selling was the real deal and the car is currently multiple parties removed from the original forger, perhaps something else entirely. I am curious now to see how this plays out and whom is the guilty party. I almost hope that, plot twist, BOTH cars end up being forgeries and we end up with a gripping mystery.

    I think a really amusing element to the real vs fake saga would be if they cannot discern which one is real. Hey… what if both are fake?

    “When the new owner went to register the car in Germany, they discovered that another 300SL was already registered with that chassis number—a Fantasy Yellow example sold through Kienle in 2019.”

    I think the little matter of Keinle being the selling agent of both cars that share the same serial number plays a role in the level of scrutiny that they are receiving.

    I know it’s too early to know all the facts but I feel sorry for any innocent parties here.

    But often the proverbial “smoking gun” points to the wrong person. I’m no naif, but I have a very hard time believing Keinle willingly participated in fraud. We’ll see, I guess.

    I’m lost. There are people who know these cars so well they can tell you how long the screws are supposed to be (literally). Few cars were made and the history of each is so well documented they know who worked on it and when they had lunch. So, am I being told someone faked an SL300 so well, that the inside of the gear boxes are identical and the casting flash inside the engines are identical and the seals are a perfect match and the paint analysis between the two is perfect???? Well, if that’s the case then the forger should get a medal and I say who cares.

    I kinda agree, seems like the sheer effort and skill to create a fake exceeds that which created the original. And don’t get me wrong, I don’t wanna see any 1%er denied his stroke-flex, but I’m wondering how this could happen. 300SLs are not thick on the ground, and there exists a registry that MB keeps very close. I know a person who has a Ferrari 308, with an all steel 288 GTO body, lamps, interior, trim- if you weren’t an expert, you’d never know (it’s black, out of Rhode Island). Is it wrong? No. To present as real? Tifosi know better. No way it could be passed as real. Are Benz fanatics lax?

    Hmm, sound’s like wealthy folk’s worries to this ol’ long haired country boy, but I will say a Hagerty article on say the 6-12 top fakes ever uncovered would make a very interesting read for sure 😉

    I wonder if selling through a broker is an attempt to insulate the seller from the crime? Either way I’d think with so few made of such a high value car, aren’t the whereabouts of every unit known, therefore shouldn’t everyone be suspicious of a new example appearing?

    Just another sign that people treating collectible cars as Investments has taken all the joy out of the hobby. Spoken from a lifelong car guy.

    Not that I could afford to buy a Mercedes, don’t really have the desire to own one but if I was going to spend that kind of cash I would have some one check it over I say buyer beware!!!

    Cat in a bag , Pig in a poke, Beware of anything that seems too good…
    As the salesman said “Caveat emptor “!!!!

    This restoration shop is one of leading authorities of this marque and of 300s .he has undoubtedly the expertise and historical knowledge to authenticate these vehicles down to a science and he has done so. using the excuse that he was only a dealer while not truly vetting the vehicle does not excuse his actions or his reputation at best . I can only assume at this point that he felt that he knew this car so well as to feel comfortable in his dealings . we are all human and even the best of us can be manipulated at some point especially when greed can be a motivating factor for both sellers and buyers. I hope only the best of outcomes for the innocent parties in this position.

    Barney- a shop often will take a project with only the consigners name. If there wasn’t any reason to suspect shenanigans, car restoration shops aren’t policemen nor staffed by such. Sometimes, the very best trip and fall. Ever watch sports? 20-20 hindsight helps no one and solves nothing. The truth will out. Let’s wait before pointing fingers and shrieking, shall we?

    Well, I run into this all the time and have for years. It’s a lot more difficult to build a fake than you would think. There’s always at least one detail that gets overlooked, even if it’s done by the foremost expert. Sometimes it’s because they did a better job than the factory. Sometimes it’s an anomaly and the car isn’t a fake. We’re not talking clone either, this Mercedes deal is an alleged counterfeit. Totally different. This one sounds like a fake.
    The problem with this is that the car is restored and the original one was not. I don’t see a history for the Yellow one while the other one has documented ownership, and to boot, the Broker” had some property seized. Here’s the quote from the prosecution:
    “Regarding the evidence seized, it can be stated that, among other things, two 300 SL vehicles, an engine for the 300 SL car, a 300 SL chassis and a tubular space frame for the 300 SL type were confiscated,”
    I would say dude is pretty much smoked.
    I’ve run across a few odd deals with two sets of numbers. One was a pretty rare 1959 Osca 1500S. Unfortunately, after the car was bought with no title. It went through the bonded title process and the State Patrol ‘expert’ turned it into a 1963. Sparks flying at that event. He absolutely refused to correct it. The car is now a ’63 with all the wrong equipment. What caused the problem? The car was produced in 1959 and sent to a coach builder. Apparently, the coach builder didn’t complete the car until 1963 thus changing the build date on the import paperwork even though the actual VIN is consistent with 1959. Anamoly.
    Another one was a Maserati 3500GT. I’m not going to mention the year. It changed hands multiple times without title transfer and sat a lot. I did I guess was the 30 or 40 year service (replace everything rubber etc.) The owner went to license it and yep, they said this serial number is already attached to another vehicle. We talked to Maserati and they agreed but would not disclose ownership of the other car. All they would say was that the chassis number we had was already registered and accounted for with the serial number matching the engine number. This one turned out to have a Maserati Sebring engine. The numbers didn’t match, there were a few little things that weren’t quite right like the missing oil cooler, Redline air filters and the curiously absent fender tag that identified the trim options. I don’t believe this was ever resolved. The car was a legitimate 3500GT, but where did hat frame stamp come from and why were there two cars and only one with the matching engine? Did the title holder take it to the grave?

    If this was such a rare car and color don’t you think the shop would have been suspicious. Especially after they had sold the same exact example years earlier

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