Here we go again . . . we wrote at the end of last year about the demise of the Jubaozhai Museum in Henan province after curious bright-green cartoon characters, with a puzzling similarity to a laughing squid, were found to be a feature of a vase catalogued as dating back to the Qing dynasty. It was then found that almost all of the 40,000 exhibits were fakes.
Well, the scammers have been hard at work again. The police in Lucheng, in China’s north-east Liaoning Province have just closed down the local museum. They say that almost a third of the 8,000 allegedly historical exhibits are fakes.
One of the most extraordinary exhibits is a large ornamental sword said to be from the Qing dynasty and put through the books with a value of the equivalent of US $19 million.
According to official government figures, 299 museums opened their doors in 2013. The Chinese government is, in fact, devoting considerable cash resources to the promotion of Chinese culture, both domestically and abroad. Cash sums are available for artists and entrepreneurs, and the temptation to acquire cheap forgeries is considerable. Add that to the fact that the business of forgeries is now a major industry in China and you have some explanation of the situation . In 2012, a study by the China-based Artron data company estimated that as many as 250,000 people in 20 Chinese cities may be involved on a day-to-day basis in the production and sale of fake art.
Xiao Ping, a painter who is an authentication adviser to the Nanjing Museum, told The New York Times last year, “I would say 80 per cent of the lots in small and medium-sized auction houses are replicas.”
Curiously, the present wave of forgery is attributable to the practice of yahui (‘elegant bribery’) whereby, until very recently, it was commonplace to bribe public officials with works of art. As this had got rather expensive, doing it with the real thing, the forgery business expanded exponentially. In the last 18 months, however, central government has been energetically cracking down on such corruption and vast numbers of fakes have instead been finding their way to places like new museums, Ebay and foreign auction rooms.
This has presented an enormous problem for western auction houses. Many of the fakes have been finding their way into Europe and America and a lot of them are actually very good indeed. You might say, museum quality . . . Quite a few auction houses have been caught out by the fakes although, understandably, they are reluctant to admit to the fact. This has led to a change in cataloguing procedure at small and medium-sized auction houses: if there is any doubt about a piece, it will simply be described without any attempt at putting a date on it. This has one of two effects when the lot comes up in the auction room. Most bidders will read between the lines and leave the lot alone. However, the more adventurous, or optimistic will take the view that the auctioneer might be wrong and that it is what it might appear to be, 18th or 19th century, say. Sometimes that assessment is proved correct.
Never has the aphorism caveat emptor proved more apposite. If you have any doubt, just look at Ebay listings for Chinese antiques and you will find dozens of objets offered from China and which, indubitably were made yesterday!
Ironically, some of the fakes emanate from the ancient well-established porcelain capital of Jingdezhen in southern China. The kilts there produced some of the finest Imperial pieces ever made in the 18th and 19th centuries and those ancient skills have been passed down over the centuries. The craftspeople are so good at their job that they are frequently engaged by Chinese museums to fashion faithful copies for public display whilst the originals are squirreled away. Some of these copies take many years to produce and are virtually identical to the original. And, of course, along the route some distinctly unofficial copies can reach the market . . .
China Radio International (CRI) quoted antiques expert Ma Weidu on the closure of museums in China, “Similar fake museums are found in many places in China.” Asked to put a figure on the number, he estimated that there were around 20. Watch this space!