‘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.