Thesaurus becomes synonym for 'fake': More gallery items checked; none appear legit
Seattle Times staff reporters
Lutton recently took the figurine from a shelf in her Seattle home, dropped it into a box and mailed it to The Seattle Times.
"I am sure now it is a near-worthless copy, only interesting because of the story behind it," Lutton said.
Lutton, owner of Twice Sold Tales used-book store on Capitol Hill, was one of nearly a dozen unhappy Thesaurus customers, from Ecuador to Indiana, who contacted The Times after a Jan. 26 story that reported the store was selling fakes.
Last week, some of those customers met with a former Seattle Art Museum curator who evaluated 17 Chinese antiques purchased from Thesaurus, many at steep discounts. His expert opinion: The pieces were all fakes.
A vase originally priced at $8,000 and purchased for $5,600 would legitimately sell for about $100, John Stevenson said. Lutton's $600 statue, he said, is worth "five bucks."
No one from the store would comment on the latest findings. The store has been closed since the original Times story ran two weeks ago, and is under investigation by both the Washington state Attorney General and the Federal Trade Commission for deceptive trade practices. The U.S. Customs Service closed its case on Thesaurus on Thursday, saying alleged consumer fraud was not a Customs case.
The Internet auction site eBay deleted all of Thesaurus' items on Thursday. The Web site reads, "This seller is not currently offering any auctions for sale."
A doctor, a professor, an archaeologist and a business leader are among the Thesaurus buyers who apparently got taken.
A bad investment
Dorr Tippens, 52, of Seattle, spent more than $30,000 on goods from the store and said he thought of the purchases as an investment. He has receipts for most of them.
Tippens said Edith Crighton, the store manager and Thesaurus president, told him some items he purchased were from the owner's personal collection.
"She said, 'If I were you, I would grab these,' " Tippens recalled.
Tippens met Tuesday with four investigators, contacted an attorney and hopes "some good might come of this."
Stevenson, an expert in Asian art and the former acting assistant curator of Chinese art at the Seattle Art Museum, evaluated 15 of Tippens' pieces. Every one of them is a modern reproduction, he said. "Nothing is remotely right."
Two of the pieces were well-crafted and might be worth as much as $100, but the others, costing as much as $5,600 each, were simply bad reproductions, Stevenson said.
Dr. Chris Leininger, chief information officer for Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, paid $1,500 last year for an urn that Thesaurus said was from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).
Stevenson said it was "absolutely new" and worth less than $200.
"I'm rarely taken in by things," Leininger said. "I was by this one."
He was convinced, he said, because the price wasn't too low, the object wasn't too rare, and Crighton was believable.
Other buyers bought through Thesaurus' eBay operation. Users of the auction site rely on feedback to assess the reliability of buyers and sellers. Thesaurus has praise from 89 buyers and criticism from only one.
But several people who left praise on eBay now say they were cheated.
Joseph Martin, a retired university professor in Richmond, Ind., said he paid about $2,000 three years ago for a Chinese vase purported to be from the 18th century. At the time, he wrote on eBay: "An excellent seller. Goods delivered promptly and exactly as described."
Thesaurus praised him as a buyer: "A+ customer!"
Now Martin uses a different term for the store: "these fraudulent creeps." He's sending the vase to the Indianapolis Museum of Art for evaluation.
Steven Ng Sheong Cheung, a renowned economist, former University of Washington professor and Hong Kong newspaper columnist, is part owner and the key figure behind Thesaurus, and still insists the antiques are real.
Cheung says he will return to Seattle by Feb. 20 to plead not guilty to federal tax-evasion charges. Cheung, who owns homes in Seattle, Hong Kong and Shanghai, is accused of hiding millions of dollars through tax shelters and a web of companies, including Thesaurus.
Cheung is believed to own more than $12 million in U.S. real estate and other interests.
While investigating Thesaurus, The Times purchased a "Tang Dynasty" teapot and a "Ming Dynasty" tile and had them tested by two of the world's foremost laboratories. Both tests indicated that the objects were recently made, contradicting test certificates by two Hong Kong labs that the store had provided.
One of those labs was set up by Cheung.
At a Hong Kong news conference, Cheung accused a Seattle Times reporter of being an agent for the Internal Revenue Service. He claimed the newspaper or a mailing service had reheated the antiques to make them appear to be new. Hong Kong media described Cheung's behavior at the news conference as "bizarre."
Most Thesaurus customers had no direct contact with Cheung, but some corresponded with him concerning their complaints.
Identifying himself merely as "Steve of Thesaurus," Cheung had told William Klebous of Australia that there was "zero chance" two "Neolithic" erotic jades he'd purchased were inauthentic. But independent experts told Klebous otherwise.
He got his money back, but Klebous was the only eBay buyer to leave a negative comment on the site: "FAKE."
Thesaurus responded, "Non-sense!"
Other eBay buyers, such as Michael Jolly, say they had no trouble getting refunds from Thesaurus when they determined that their purchases were fakes, but were still out the cost of the shipping and thermoluminescence (TL) testing, which can cost up to $500. TL tests can determine the approximate age of ceramic objects.
Jolly had left nine compliments about Thesaurus on eBay before he learned they weren't selling what they claimed.
James Judge, a U.S. citizen, archaeologist and art-gallery owner who has lived in Ecuador since 1969, said he paid $4,900 for two ceramic "Han Dynasty" (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) horses and a jade sword from Thesaurus' eBay auctions. He had the horses tested by the world's leading lab, Oxford Authentication in England. They were modern.
"They returned my money and let me keep the items," Judge said. "I guess I was lucky."
Another buyer, Ian McLachlan, said he bought a piece knowing it was a fake, just because he liked it. Formerly a professor at the University of Hong Kong and now at Trent University in Ontario, McLachlan said his first purchase from Thesaurus was a bowl that two museum curators said was probably authentic.
"The second one I bought knowing it to be a fake. A real one would be a couple of million, not $250," he wrote. "It's a good fake and it gives me a lot of pleasure."
But McLachlan grew angry with Cheung because, he said, "I couldn't get him to admit it was a fake. It was so obvious and quite absurd. In the end, I decided to have nothing more to do with him."
Sondra Goehle, a medical research technician supervisor in Seattle, bought about eight items at Thesaurus, from a $75 pitcher to a $1,500 fluted vase.
After she bought the pitcher, she noticed that more of the same appeared on the store's shelves. Goehle said, "That put me on to the fact that these are being cranked out somewhere in China."
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