Fake antiques are a tradition in China
Seattle Times art critic
Every year, a flashy array of fake Chinese antiquities enters the global marketplace — from tawdry souvenir-shop reproductions to brilliantly executed masterpieces that curators call "scary."
Most of those fakes come through Hong Kong, China's wildly capitalistic gateway to the world. Trying to quantify the trade in fakes is like trying to get your hands around an octopus. No one keeps records of the illegal trade.
Authorities rarely enforce the laws against fraud. And most people agree corrupt officials look the other way, or even participate in the trade.
The business in fake ceramic, jade and bronze objects is worth untold millions of dollars each year. In Hong Kong itself, the best estimates say that three-fourths of the "antique" ceramics for sale are fake.
The reason is simple: Collectors are eager to buy the real thing.
After a string of stunning archaeological finds in recent decades and the opening of China to private enterprise, museums and collectors in the West, Japan and China are clamoring to buy Chinese art. Auction prices are soaring: Last year, a bronze wine vessel from the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.) brought a record $9.2 million at a New York auction.
Officially, the Chinese government prohibits the export of antiquities and takes dramatic steps to keep its cultural treasures from leaving the country. In the past 10 years, China has executed more than 20 people for stealing archaeological relics.
Yet China does little to control fakes.
For art dealers, then, "it requires absolutely constant vigilance," says Julian Thompson, Chinese art expert for Sotheby's.
Forgeries aren't exclusive to the trade of Chinese artifacts. Anyone who collects art knows that fakes abound, even in contemporary art.
But Chinese art comes with particular issues. With a 7,000-year-old culture, the Chinese have a reverence for antiquity and a long tradition of making and selling reproductions.
"The idea of originality is a modern concept," says Cary Liu, associate curator of Asian art at Princeton University Art Museum. "If you are learning from a master, you're copying the master. The idea isn't to produce an exact duplicate. You end up with a product completely different. The hand of the artist is there."
Yet even in ancient times, some Chinese reproductions were meant to deceive. "It's been going on at least 1,000 years," said Michael Knight, curator of Chinese art at San Francisco's Museum of Asian Art and a former Seattle Art Museum curator. "There are notes about it: 'How to make a jade look old — bury it in the belly of a rabbit for umpteen years,' et cetera."
A few rare objects are so amazing they not only baffle the experts but retain their value despite disagreements about their origin.
A recent controversy over a Chinese painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York illustrates the point. The painting, "Riverbank," was attributed to the great 10th century painter, Dong Yuan. It was purchased from renowned collector C.C. Wang by a Met trustee, who donated it to the museum. Some consider the piece one of the great Chinese paintings of all time.
Yet two of the world's top experts — scholar and author James Cahill and Sherman Lee, a former SAM curator — believe it may have been painted by the 20th century artist, collector and known forger Zhang Daqian, who died 20 years ago. In fact, Wang acquired the painting from Zhang.
The controversy is far from solved, but most scholars now agree the painting is neither by Dong or Zhang, but some other artist between the 10th and 13th centuries.
Liu of the Princeton museum believes the whole controversy was overblown. He says the main thing to remember is the amazing quality of the painting.
"Regardless of whether it's Song Dynasty or some other period," says Liu, "you can't escape the fact that it's a great object. That's a level (of artistry) where the scholars may argue, but they still value the piece."
The bargain trade
On the other end of the scale are low-quality reproductions sold as souvenirs or fraudulently marketed as antiques.
Thesaurus Fine Arts in Seattle, like its counterparts in Hong Kong and other cities, caters to an odd niche market of tourists, unsophisticated art buyers and what one dealer calls "bottom feeders" — people looking for bargains that they might be able to quickly resell for a profit.
Its location among established galleries gives Thesaurus an air of legitimacy, an impression the gallery promotes. In a handout on "Ceramics Dating" signed by "advisor" Steven Cheung, it says: "There are no articles at Thesaurus that are knowingly fake; although some of them I am not certain. However, I have given most of the articles only quick examinations. An article TL tested positive typically commands a considerably higher price, because if an auction house takes it, with a little luck it may bring a very high price. Generally, therefore, the better buy is the untested articles."
That kind of sales pitch appeals to the speculative buyer who has replaced a genuine appreciation for fine objects with a gambling mentality.
" 'Antiques Roadshow' misleads people," says Cheney Cowles, owner of the Crane Gallery in Seattle and past president of SAM's Asian Arts Council. "People don't sell things for $5,000 if they're worth $20,000."
William Rathbun, SAM's curator emeritus of Asian art, says he browsed through Thesaurus when it first opened.
"I went in once and even without my questioning, there were these assurances that it was museum-quality stuff," Rathbun said. "I didn't want to argue, so I just left."
One of the first rules for art collectors is to know the reputation of the dealer.
Thesaurus sells a lot through the Internet auction site eBay, a process that's inherently more perilous for the buyer. It's hard to get information on the seller, and photographs of the objects can be deceiving.
"I wouldn't buy anything on the Internet," says Seattle collector Robert Dootson, a SAM trustee. Even after years of collecting, he still gets expert advice on antiquities, usually from a museum curator, before he makes a major purchase.
Most dealers and collectors talk about the money they lost on fakes as "tuition" — an unavoidable price of learning.
"It's one of the most costly doctorates you can ever buy," says Robert Ellsworth, an outspoken New York dealer and collector who has donated major works to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and other institutions.
Yet they all agree that the knowledge gained is worth it and the pleasures of living with extraordinary works of art are ample reward. The trick is to do your homework. Ellsworth says it's buyer beware.
"That's why I have very little patience with these people who are buying things they don't know about," he said. "They deserve what they get. It's like stocks."
Seattle Times reporter Duff Wilson contributed to this report.
Sheila Farr: 206-464-2270 or email@example.com