‘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.

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




A tale of Yongzheng dragon chargers £218,500 or £1,500?

Yonzheng charger Sold by Sotheby’s for £218,500

One of Sotheby’s best prices last week was for ‘a rare iron-red and underglaze-blue nine dragon charger Yongzheng mark and period’. It was formerly the property of collectors George and Cornelia Wingfield Digby.

Despite considerable historic damage, and an unconvincing repair job, it made £218,500, inclusive of buyer’s premium. It is, of course, not the only one around: there are almost identical ones in The Shanghai Museum in People’s Square, Shanghai, and in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. There are also a few, rather later copies in circulation . . .

The charger sold last week was described in Sotheby’s catalogue as being a ‘nine dragon charger: a central dragon within the central medallion, with four to the interior, around the rim, and another four underneath to the exterior. There is a six character mark to the base within a double circle, size  47.5cm., 18 ¾ in.’
But the condition report reveals extensive historic damage. ‘The dish was broken into five pieces. It has now been repaired with the cracks still visible under the naked eye. There are large areas of overspray, possibly also concealing associated rim chips. The base is oversprayed, with the mark painted over. There are some chips to the foot, the largest measuring 0.7×0.4cm. The central interior has a 0.2×0.1cm area of paint loss (under the glaze) to the lower left of the dragon tail. Minor glaze firing imperfections such as iron spots and burst glaze bubbles.’
Of course, it is slightly surprising that such a desirable piece should have been so poorly restored but, most likely, it was a simple matter of getting the wrong person for the job. It is, indeed, a very fine piece in all its variations – and you can get one for a lot less than a quarter of a million pounds, and in rather better condition!
Yongzheng mark Yongzheng mark to base

Sotheby’s include a very good explanatory note in the catalogue. ‘Dishes of this magnificent size and formidable decoration were made to impress. Such wares were used at Imperial banquets and on special celebratory occasions, such as the ‘Thousand Elderly Banquet’ held in honour of senior citizens when thousands of invited guests were served a great feast. The Manchu custom of banqueting closely followed the Mongolian and Tibetan tradition of shared communal dining.A Yongzheng dish of this design and large size in the Palace Museum, Beijing, is published in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Blue and White Porcelain with Underglazed Red, vol. 3, Hong Kong, 2000, pl. 223; another in the Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, was included in the exhibition Seikado zo Shincho toji. Keitokuchin kanyo no bi [Qing porcelain collected in the Seikado. Beauty of the Jingdezhen imperial kilns], Seikado Bunko Art Museum, Tokyo, 2006, cat. no. 53; and another in the Meiyintang collection is published in Regina Krahl, Chinese Ceramics from the Meiyintang Collection, London, 1994-2010, vol. 4, no. 1723. Compare also a Yongzheng dish sold three times in our rooms, once in London in 1995, and twice in Hong Kong, in 2005 and 9th October 2012, lot 125, from the collection of Dr Alice Cheng; another sold in our London rooms, 6th December 1994, lot 179; and a third, with a slightly reduced rim, sold at Christie’s London, 10th April 1978, lot 49.’

This piece would have been made in Jingdezhen and the decoration is a Yongzheng  interpretation of an early-Ming pattern. The Yongzheng emperor is reputed to have sent porcelain from the palace to Jingdezhen in order to establish rather better production standards as well as to serve as models and inspirations for designs. This dragon design follows after a Xuande prototype, where dishes were painted with a side-facing five-clawed dragon amongst crashing waves in the centre, the side decorated with three dragons striding amid clouds. An example of this 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. (Source: Sotheby’s)

Sotheby’s give some excellent well-researched background to the piece. ‘The creative ingenuity of the Yongzheng potter is evident from the successful transference of a pattern that was originally made for much smaller vessels. The different design elements on this dish are perfectly composed to give no hint of overcrowding or spatial gaps that could hinder the overall harmony. While maintaining the essence of the original design, the artist created a motif that is familiar yet fresh: the side-facing dragon has been replaced with a frontal dragon and the crashing waves no longer cover any part of the dragon’s body to give a greater sense of the creature’s dominance and strength. The use of red heightens the contrast between the dynamism of the background and that of the dragons while endowing the scene with further auspicious meaning. Moreover, the extent of the Qing craftsman’s proficiency is evident in the additional crested rolling wave band encircling the rim of the dish which frames and draws the expansive design together, an element that was not necessary for the smaller Ming dishes.

‘Yongzheng dishes of this type continued to be favoured by the Qianlong emperor who commissioned the making of very similar vessels. Examples of dishes from both periods are illustrated in Min Shin no bijutsu [Ming and Qing art], Tokyo, 1982, pls. 154 and 172; and another Qianlong example in the Nanjing Museum 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, and also illustrated on the dust jacket.’