Is this a Chinese art book? We really don’t think so, Mr Amazon

opinion hl

You won’t be surprised to learn that we buy a lot of Chinese art books here at chineseart.co.uk. We maintain a large library of books to help checking all our entries and for help with delving into some of the arcane byways of Chinese art.

We buy books internationally and one of our largest suppliers is (or was) amazon.co.uk. As you may know, not all books supplied by Amazon actually come directly from the Behemoth that is this vast operation, which operates internationally with virtually no policing. Some books are supplied by what is known as Amazon Marketplace – independent traders using the Amazon mantle.

Rather recently, we spotted a book on Amazon we wished to acquire: Chinese Ceramics: Porcelain of the Qing Dynasty 1644-1911, sold by an outlet called ‘the book house’, said to be part of Amazon Marketplace. We duly paid for same.

Imagine our surprise when the book illustrated below pitched up in the post!

Amazon fraud1064  Amazon fraud1065

It doesn’t look to us much like a book dealing with the porcelain of the Qing dynasty, does it? Maybe the book picker at the warehouse wasn’t very bright and made a little mistake? Oh, but what is this? If you look at the bottom of the back cover you will see that this unassuming cheap little paperback does, indeed, officially profess, with an official bar code, to be Chinese Ceramics . . . Even more disturbing, the book came in the same parcel as a guidebook bought DIRECTLY from Amazon books UK. So it did not come froma marketplace seller at all. That, Amazon, is what is called FRAUD.

Now, there’s been rather a lot in the press lately about people getting bricks in the post professing to be expensive phones or laptops. Perhaps this has now spread to the Amazon world of art books?

We emailed Amazon. The nice American-sounding man who came on the phone, Mr Christian, did not dispute the matter. I got the impression it wasn’t that unusual. So far we have got no credit for our postage (£2.80). I suppose if you take a few pounds or dollars off millions of people, you will become rather rich, especially if you don’t pay very much in tax.

If Amazon was based in the UK, I would fire off a legal missive. But, as we all know, they are based in remote Luxembourg, safe from all threats: from both governments and customers. The most you could do is hop on a plane and go and deface their nameplate.

Curiously, the very same morning an email came in, apparently from the organiser of a lecture on Chinese art (indeed, on fakes and forgeries!), I was to give a few days later. I was surprised to see that it advised me he was away at a conference in Krakow, Poland (what about my lecture???). His cases had been stolen and would I please send him some money pronto?

It’s sort of comforting to know that it’s not just the Chinese art scene which is replete with fakes and cons. They are, indeed, all around us. Let’s be aware . . .

Hong Kong expert questions security in the China art market

As we reported ten days ago, a heart-stopping presentation during Asian Art in London, sponsored by Edinburgh-based auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull, was made by a Senior Inspector in the Hong Kong Police, also a private art security consultant, Toby J A Bull. In our view, it was probably the most significant talk in a long series of events.

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Toby J A Bull of Trackart Art Risk Consultancy, Hong Kong  Photo Paul Harris

The talk, entitled A Quest for Authenticity in the Chinese Art Market, dealt with a range of areas of concern for dealers and collectors ranging from the nebulous role of Hong Kong in the international trade to tomb robbing, fakes and forgeries, money laundering and theft. He started his presentation with a dramatic quotation from the novel The Gilded Seal by James Twining: ‘Forgery is the paedophilia of the art world. Once the suspicion is raised, you are presumed guilty, even when proven innocent. It’s a shadow that never leaves, poisoning everything you touch. So you need to be either very brave, or very sure that you’re right, before you try forgery in this city . . .’. As a result, the Hong Kong art business is a tightly held industry difficult to penetrate and opaque in the extreme.

Bull emphasised initially that he was not talking on behalf of the Hong Kong Police, although he is a Senior Inspector there. There is no art crime squad within the Hong Kong Police. As he spun his tale, however, it became quite clear why he was not talking on behalf of the Police: the Police Authority simply has no role in preventing illegal activities related to the art world.

The 1997 agreement between China and the UK specifically provided for strict Chinese laws on the protection of cultural relics NOT to apply to Hong Kong: one country, two systems. There are separate Export Laws and in terms of Hong Kong’s Import and Export Ordinance (Part IV), there is provision for a Freeport handling ‘Unmanifested Cargo’ which simply facilitates smuggling. Once goods have passed through the Freeport of Hong Kong they are effectively legitimised with all the necessary export-import paperwork. This is particularly relevant in relation to the import of antiquities to mainland China where an import duty of around 35% is imposed.

The vast volume of goods in containers means that a statistically minute proportion is ever examined. Between 1992 and 1996 (under the UK) HK$ 15 million of Chinese antiquities were seized in HK; the figure went down dramatically between 1997 and 2006 totalling HK$2.3m.; between 2007 and 2012 no Chinese antiquities at all were seized ! Many of these containers carry thousands of copies of antiquities: forgeries. Not only is porcelain copied on an industrial scale within mainland China, but, even, Kuomintang stickers to accompany items said to originate from the haul of evacuated antiquities during the dying days of the civil war 1948-49. The quality of fakes is now extremely high.

There is no unit in the Hong Kong police these days engaged in investigating illegal activities in the local art world despite the fact that large quantities of stolen and forged artefacts pass through the Freeport every week. These include the products of tomb robbing in China. Such looting “requires an elaborate, multi-layered network of grave robbers, middlemen and art dealers.” Such networks flourish in China.

Hong Kong very often benefits. In 2002, antiquities looted from eight outer temples of The Forbidden City were included in a Christie’s Hong Kong auction catalogue and were ultimately withdrawn from sale. Christie’s deemed it an isolated case’ and averred that it ‘devoted considerable resources to investigating the provenance of all objects offered for sale’.

“The majority of art is stolen for money laundering purposes and art sales are often components of the laundering process,” Bull said. The media usually reports in terms of dramatic value the stealing of works of art. This helps the criminals who will fund their ongoing activities at around 3-10% of such publicised value. Effectively, stolen art is used as a financial underpinning to the China-Hong Kong underworld.

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One of Toby Bull’s slides from his presentation    Photo Paul Harris

In Hong Kong, anti-money laundering regulatory action is based within the Anti-Money Laundering task Force (AMLTF) of which China and Hong Kong are both members. It investigates both financial institutions and Designated Non-Financial Businesses and Profession (DNBFs). Incredibly, the art market is not classified amongst the DNBF’s!

On occasion, thefts are particularly brazen. In April 2014, the Chinese mainland auctioneer Poly International held an auction in the Hong Kong Grand Hyatt Hotel where the hammer went down for the equivalent of US$3.7m. on a painting by the popular Chinese artist Cui Ruzhuo (see below). It was packed up for delivery to the buyer and stacked for collection whereupon it disappeared and has never been seen since. The Hong Kong Police were involved but were obliged to back off after Poly roundly declared it was simply ‘lost property’. Many in the Police Authority believe it was simply stolen and that Poly were keen to have the whole unedifying matter dropped . . .

 

‘But is it the real thing?’

opinion hl by Paul Harris

But is it the real thing? This must be one of the most oft heard queries at auction viewings of Chinese ceramics and works of art these days. Even if it’s not heard, it’s what is constantly going through the minds of collectors and dealers as they survey the offerings. The widespread prevalence of fakes, forgeries, copies, replicas or what ever you may care to term them, has led to much doubt, cynicism and downright disbelief in the marketplace. As a collector and dealer said to me last week, “You know, of course, that 90% of the stuff coming to the market these days is fake.”

Let’s look at that sort of assertion in a bit more detail. As we wrote in our recent articles on Yongzheng and Quianlong chargers, many of these are based on much earlier Ming examples. In that sense, they are later copies but still command very substantial prices. The skills devoted to making such copies are still regarded, rightly, extremely highly which is why such copies command six figure sums very often. The same chargers (or bowls, stem cups, whatever) were copied in the 19th century, sometimes together with the original marks, or with Guangxu, Daoguang or Jiaqing marks. They are, of course, copies but these often not created with the intention of straightforward fraud: like their Yoingzheng or Quianlong predecessors they represented an effort to produce works of equal quality in tribute to long gone craftsmen. Some of that work was rather good and tends to still command worthwhile prices.

cais yongzheng charger SONY DSC Yonzheng charger

Dragon chargers: one Yongzheng, one Quianlong and one late 20th century.            Take your choice!

Copies made later, in the 20th century, require some distinction as to intent. Things knocked off a few months ago on the outskirts of Jingdezhen in back rooms do not generally enjoy very much in terms of quality and, rightly, are looked down upon in the marketplace and are virtually worthless. That is not to say, of course, that some people don’t unwittingly pay good money for them.

However, some modern copies are extremely good and can test even the most expert of experts. Much time, skill and money is expended on producing authentic looking copies. Testing, with its 200-year leeway, is of little use when you are talking about 18th or 19th century pieces. It’s only any good with much earlier pieces. It is said that craftsmen in Jingdezhen in recent years have spent up to EIGHT years working on a single piece to the order of major museums in Beijing who desire to lock away the original and display the faithful copy. The replicas are, apparently, indistinguishable from the real thing. We wonder  if there are any rejects about which, let us say, just failed in some respect to meet the exacting criteria and which have managed to reach the market?

And then there are some really excellent copies produced under licence for sale by major museums, like the Shanghai Museum. Their copies are very pleasing, look good on display and, actually, aren’t that cheap. You can easily spend a couple of thousand in the museum shop acquiring a nice replica. Generally, however, they should be identified as such by any reasonably competent auction house . . .

I know a lot of people who only buy at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. They say the research is excellent and they have a copper-bottomed guarantee, so to speak, if anything they buy turns out to be in the slightest bit dubious. They feel they can buy with absolute confidence. Of course, that guarantee doesn’t come cheap. It usually comes with a price two, three or,even, four hundred per cent times the cost of acquisition in a provincial auction room without the magic cachet.

There again, the provincial room sometimes scores. Like very recently, when Lyon & Turnbull in Edinburgh exposed a blue and white charger for sale. Catalogued as late 19th/early 20th century with apocryphal Quianlong mark, and estimated at £3,000-5,000, by the time it came to be sold the market had decided rather differently after a great buzz on the grapevine. It got £427,250, inclusive of premium. So several bidders were convinced that the catalogue description was inaccurate. Personally, after viewing and handling it, I rather agreed with the auctioneers, as did some others. Sometimes it does just boil down to being a matter of opinion . . .  And even experts can disagree.

record breaking charger recordbreaking charger mark The £427,250 charger

When the hammer came down on a 1946 ink painting Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree by the master Qi Baishi, in May 2011, it was to cost the equivalent of US$65.4m. But the winning bidder declined to pay for it: he defaulted after a well known art critic, Mou Jianping, declared that it might be a fake, in direct contradiction to the auction house’s advisers, and the firm belief of the Shanghai billionaire collector who owned the picture, Liu Yiqian.

eagle standing on a prine tree Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree

In the end of the day, it is very often simply a matter of opinion. I have quite a number of pieces I fondly imagine to be early Ming but I am sure so-called experts would disagree with me. But I still get enormous pleasure from looking at them, handling them and appreciating their beauty. Dreams may not exactly come free. But you can get them for relatively little in cash and enjoy them just as a billionaire might enjoy his own somewhat pricier purchase.

INSIGHT Fake exhibits close another Chinese museum

lucheng museum ext

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.

sword in lucheng museum

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!

London Sunday Times alleges most V&A Chinese paintings ‘forgeries’

In an extraordinary article published February 2 in the London Sunday Times, apparently written by Arts Editor Richard Brooks, it is alleged that ‘ more than three quarters of Chinese paintings from the Ming and Qing dynasties at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum are either forgeries or copies and are kept away from public gaze.’ The even more extraordinary headline to the article reports ‘Merciless Ming swamps V&A with forgeries’.

It is not exactly clear from the article who the merciless and cunning Ming might be who has apparently flooded one of Britain’s most highly regarded museums with forgeries, but below the headline appears a picture of Emperor Chu Yuan-chang (sic.). One presumes the newspaper is referring to the first Ming Emperor, known as the Hongwu Emperor, who reigned 1368-98. The Victoria & Albert Museum, arguably the best museum of decorative arts and design in the world, was founded in 1852 so the Emperor in question must certainly have been extremely able and cunning . . .  Quite how he ‘mercilessly’ filled the Museum with fakes and forgeries is not explained!

Sunday Times fakes at V&A567

The article further goes on to cast doubts on the successful exhibition Masterpieces of Chinese Painting:700-1900 which has just closed, saying some of those paintings were also in doubt, quoting the museum’s deputy director Beth McKillop, “We put captions beside them stating that they were either ‘traditionally attributed to’ a certain artist or ‘possibly by’.” The newspaper alleges there were such doubts in regard to ‘about a dozen’ of the paintings in the show (there were around 70 paintings in total on display). By way of explanation, the newspaper states that the V&A did not employ a curator who could read Chinese until the 1970s (‘essential for deciphering inscriptions’) and says ‘Concern about the fakes partly explains why  much of the Chinese art in exhibitions is borrowed from America, Europe and China itself.’ As if there are no doubts about attribution in the case of paintings from these parts of the world . . .

Similar doubts are cast on paintings in the collection of The British Museum. ‘Likewise many of the 500 paintings owned by the British Museum, dating form the 6th to the 20th century, also have question marks about their authenticity.’ The British Museum opens a new exhibition in April, Gems of Chinese Paintings.

The problem is that there is little explanation in the article of the difference between fakes and forgeries, executed with the specific objective of deceiving, and copies made out of period in a bid to emulate the highest standards. The V&A-owned landscape Visiting a Friend in the Mountains, apparently signed by Li Zhaodao, is condemned as a ‘fabrication’ made 800 years later (around 1600).  Of course, the date it was created is neither here nor there in terms of the extreme artistic skill displayed in the picture. The motivation for the so-called ‘fabrication’ cannot be ascribed to greed or financial enrichment but to rather more noble desires unique to the cultural scene in China. There is a hint of such an explanation from an anonymous British Museum spokesman who told the newspaper, “It is true that a considerable number of these works could be seen to have false attributions. The majority of them were ascribed to Old Masters (sic.) in order to reference the past, or to continue a line of tradition. The moral implications to (sic.) ascribe a painting to an Old Master are looked on differently in east Asian cultures.”

The article ends with a most peculiar alleged assertion by Shelagh Vainker, head of the Chinese collection at the highly respected Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. Apparently, according to The Sunday Times, the Ashmolean only collects paintings from 1850 onwards because of such difficulties.

“So many were fakes . . . The main focus of our China collection is on ceramics and jades where forgery is not really an issue . . . “. Oh, really? Never seem to have heard of a piece of porcelain bearing a copied or earlier mark?

As a piece of journalism the article does, of course, read well despite its misleading headline and a woeful lack of context. The problem with articles like this in the so-called popular press is that they seek to make a ‘sensational’ point and evidence is selectively garnered. For a large section of the readership, lacking a wider perspective or knowledge, it calls into doubt the intrinsic value of Chinese art.