‘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.

Staggering 100 times estimate paid for charger at Lyon & Turnbull

We are all used to certain lots at auction going for three or four times the estimate, sometimes as much as ten or twenty times . . .  but 100 times the estimate is kind of unusual!

Lot 368 at today’s Lyon & Turnbull sale in Edinburgh looked a fairly pedestrian lot: a blue and white dragon charger with what the auctioneer clearly regarded as an apocryphal Quianlong mark to the base. It was catalogued as late 19th/early 20th century and estimated at £3,000-5,000. In the event, in a long bidding process involving buyers on internet and telephone it sold on the hammer at a staggering £355,000, to an outbreak of applause in the room.  In reality, with premium and VAT, it sold for £427,250.

£427,250 moment of sale

Moment of sale. Blue and white charger, Quianlong or not, knocked down to a telephone bidder for £355,000 by Lyon & Turnbull auctioneer Lee Young Photograph Paul Harris

Auctioneer Lee Young was visibly shocked and was somewhat thrown off his stride in succeeding lots in what was otherwise a fairly muted sale. However, there were two other lots which did do particularly well. The Empress Cixi dragon robe, estimated at £15-25,000, sold for a very respectable £60,000 hammer.

A very fine flambé bottle vase, catalogued with an enigmatic ‘estimate upon request’, sold for £150,000. It was these highlights which carried a sale with many unsold lots, reinforcing the message that things at the top of the market continue to do well.

Of course, whether or not the blue and white charger which commanded the guts of half a million pounds is Quianlong or not must be a matter of opinion. The experts are divided. A member of L&T’s staff said they had been told by  many dealers and other auctioneers in London that the charger was the real McCoy. The website www.chineseantiques.co.uk last night published a prediction that it would do well and were clearly impressed by it.

record breaking charger


Others in the room who had seen and handled it had rather different opinions. Personally, I thought that whilst it was impressive, it looked distinctly recent and noted it down at £2,000 top bid.  Either way, L&T are well covered. After all, they clearly state in the catalogue that it is ‘late 19th/early 20th century’ . . .

Nobel provenance for Quianlong 9-dragon charger

Last week, we noted in our feature on five/nine dragon chargers that in an upcoming auction in Sweden there would be offered a Quianlong charger based on the much earlier classic Ming design. We have now learned from one of our readers, and from the catalogue issued by the auctioneers, that the charger coming up at Uppsala Auktions in Sweden enjoys a most interesting provenance from the renowned Nobel family:

Apparently, it was the property of Rolf Nobel (1882-1947), who most likely received it from his elder brother Emanuel Nobel (1859-1932). Rolf and Emanuel were both nephews of Alfred Nobel, founder of the Nobel Prize Award. Thence it came by descent to Rolf Nobel’s son Viktor Nobel (1919-2014), and thence to the present owner.

Emanuel Nobel led the Nobel companies in Russia and was the President of BraNobel in Russia after his father Ludvig died. He was one of Carl Fabergés most important clients, besides the Russian Tsar and family. Uppsala Auctions have published a well researched piece, as well you might do with a lot estimated at around 100,000 euros.

The nine-dragon design on this charger is after a Xuande prototype, where dishes were painted with a side-facing five-clawed dragon amongst crashing waves in the centre, the cavetto decorated with three dragons striding amid clouds. An example of the original Xuande dish, excavated at the waste heap of the Ming Imperial Kilns in Zhushan, was included in the exhibition, Xuande Imperial Kiln Excavated at Jingdezhen, Chang Foundation, Taipei, 1998, cat. no. 87.
Another Xuande example with four dragons around the cavetto is illustrated in The Complete Treasures of the Palace Museum, vol. 34 Blue and White (1) Porcelain With Underglaze Red.
On the charger offered for sale, the central side-facing dragon of the Xuande prototype has been replaced with a dragon en face. The vivacity of the central dragon depicted here is characteristic of the Qing dynasty portrayal of the Imperial dragon, which compared to the Ming dragon, is ever more boldly detailed and defined in its facial features and more elaborately represented in its general ferocity and mythological power.
The use of red heightens the contrast between the crashing waves of the background and that of the dragons, whilst heightening the scene with further auspicious meaning. The Qing craftsmen have added the crested rolling wave band encircling the rim of the dish which completes the design, an element that was not necessary for the smaller Ming dishes.
Early Qing rulers, particularly Qianlong, liked to see their old masterpieces of ancient designs and glazes re-interpreted, using the skills and technology available during their reigns as a way of celebrating China’s glorious past.
Dishes of this type were favoured both by the Qianlong emperor, and his predecessor the emperor Yongzheng, who first commissioned the making of these particular magnificent and impressive “red dragon” chargers. They represent a powerful re-interpretation indeed. These dishes would have been used at Imperial banquets, undoubtedly both to impress and to add a feeling of grandeur to the occasion.
A Qianlong example of the red dragon dish can be seen in the Nanjing Museum and was included in the exhibition, Qing Imperial Porcelain of the Kangxi, Yongzheng and Qianlong Reigns, Art Gallery, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong, 1995, cat. no. 81. This red dragon dish was also illustrated on the front cover of the catalogue.
Another Qianlong dish of this magnificent and formidable size was exhibited in Sweden in 1995 in Gothenburg at Röhsska Museet on loan from the Shanghai museum and can be seen in the exhibition catalogue, Ancient Chinese Art from the Shanghai Museum, no. 61, page 63.
For a very similar Qianlong example of this dish see Sotheby’s, May 15th 1990, lot 207. This dish is further  illustrated in the catalogue Sotheby’s Hong Kong, Twenty Years,  1973 to 1993, celebrating the highlights of objects sold through them.
Further examples, one from the Qianlong period and one from the Yongzheng period are illustrated in Min Shin no bijutsu [Ming and Qing art], Tokyo, 1982, pls. 154 and 172.
Another dish from the Yongzheng period is in The Palace Museum, Beijing and is published in The Complete Collection of Treasues of the Palace Museum, Blue and White Porcelain and under glazed Red, vol. 3, Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 223; another in the Meiyintang collection published in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol.4, no.1723. In this book work Krahl writes about the technical achievement that allowed for such grand objects to be made during this period.

                                   Lot 1040 Uppsala Auctions June 13 2014

Blue seal mark to base