A $1.7 Million Chinese Vase Draws FBI Attention Over Claims Of Authenticity

qianlong-forgeryAn Italian bidder offered a cool $1.7 million for what he thought was an 18th Century Famille Rose double gourd vase at Altair Auctions & Appraisals in Boston, US. Such bids are normally reserved for elite auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s, but it seems that the sale has stirred some controversy in the art world.

A local Boston newspaper received an anonymous tip, claiming that the vase bore a striking similarity to a 20th Century replica that was sold for just $3,840 in May 2012. It has come to light that the vase is almost certainly the same one, however it seems that sometime between the previous and the new sale, someone managed to forge it’s ownership history, perhaps to fool any potential new buyer about its humble origin.

James Jackson, the Iowa-based auctioneer who originally sold the reproduction vase on May 23rd 2012, claims that: “You could tell from looking at it that the vase did not predate the 20th Century. It didn’t require an expert. It would be like putting a Mercedes-Benz hood ornament on a VW Beetle.”

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After reviewing the various accounts of the vase’s history, the company’s owner – Benjamin Wang admitted that the vase is most likely the same one sold by Jackson in 2012, however Wang believes that Jackson did not realise the true value of the vase when he sold it. Wang said that he is confident that it shouldn’t detract from the real value of the antique, despite cancelling the sale and forfeiting his $300,000 commission.

Wang’s attorney, Orestes Brown explained that they are planning to send the vase to China to be appraised by a government authority. He said “We have an item that we say is worth more than $1 million. We don’t want the reputation of the vase to be tainted because of the opinion of some guy [Jackson] with no credibility.”

The entire debacle gives rare insight into the world of Chinese Art auction markets, which has taken the antiques world by storm in recent years, due to the advent of wealthy Chinese collectors who are spending copious amounts of money on art and other luxury items around the world.

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Robert K. Whittman, a former FBI agent who runs a company that recovers stolen treasures had this to say: “The trouble with China is that 70 per cent of the art is fake. Even villages are reproducing ancient prototypes. A lot of the modern art is fake as well.” Another major concern is “ghost bidders” who are bidding up their own items, to artificially increase the items’ value.

Launched in September 2012, Altair was created by Benjamin Wang to specialise in Asian art and Antiques. The company’s owner is of Chinese origin himself and studied Chinese Art and Antiques at the Institute of Mongolian History. Since its opening at a strip mall next to a budget tile shop, the antiques house claims to have made many big sales of Chinese antiques, including a sale worth $566,440 for a blue and white Chinese vase.

Auctioneering is a very competitive business, as the sellers can make or break auction houses just as much as the buyers. It is perhaps unsurprising that rival auctioneers are fierce about holding on to their customer’s loyalty. Wang’s former employer, Kaminski Auctions of Beverly sued Wang with allegations of fraud, just a month after he opened Altair. They claimed that he diverted Kaminski’s clients and their valuables to his own auction businesses, as well as stealing a Chinese sword which was later sold for $1.4 million. Wang denied their allegations saying that they were “ridiculous and preposterous”, also several of Wang’s clients a wrote testimonials in his defence.

Although the ordeal seems to be nothing more than a quarrel between the Wang and Jackson, it is undeniable that someone has embellished the vase’s history. It is difficult to overlook the fact that the vase that was sold as a replica on May 23, 2012 at Jackson’s International Auctioneers & Appraisals in Cedar Falls, Iowa, should be sold as a genuine 18th Century piece at Altair’s on March 30, 2013. Wang and his lawyer, Brown claim that the seller, Dong Hua has provided false documentation of ownership, or provenance. Brown also believes that Hua attached a new Christie’s sticker to the bottom of the vase, to indicate that the item was last sold on February 23, 1989 at Christie’s auction in South Kensington, London. Wang claimed that Hua kept the receipt from the sale.

What Wang neglected to do, was to check with Christie’s directly and to ask to see the sales slip when appraising the vase in person. Instead, Wang relied on his own opinion and expertise, accepting Hua’s documentation without question and listing the vase as a full page photo in his catalogue, with an estimated selling price of $60,000 – $80,000.

By checking the Christie’s sticker, marked with the number ‘297’, he could have avoided a costly mistake. According to Christie’s Auctions spokeswoman, lot 297 on February 23, 1989 was not even a vase, but a blanc de chine statuette of a Buddhist goddess, with an estimated value of $100. Another clue that Wang missed was the location of the auction itself. According to art experts, Christie’s South Kensington auctions are normally reserved for inexpensive items and trinkets.

When initially contacted by the newspaper in April, Wang was enthusiastic about the media exposure and was adamant that the vase was an authentic 18th Century piece. As for questions as to why someone would choose to sell such an valuable item through a relatively unknown, small auction house, Wang reasoned that big auctioneers charged more commission, made more mistakes and created more red tape.

On the other hand, when the newspaper interviewed James Jackson, he was convinced that the record-price vase that Wang sold was nothing more than the reproduction vase that he sold last year. He reasoned that the pattern and wear marks on the vases looked the same. The only differences were the stickers on the base – Jackson’s reproduction had a torn yellow Christie’s sticker with an illegible number, while Wang’s sticker was new and intact. Jackson went as far as challenging Altair to hire a mutually agreed upon appraiser to assess the vase.

The $1.7 million vase sale is being investigated by the Department of Justice as to whether the auction house and seller deliberately misled potential buyers. If evidence was found that more than one individual was involved and internet advertising was used – it could be a case of a federal crime, constituting of wire or mail fraud. According to former FBI agent, Robert K. Whittman: “If it can be proven that an auction house has conspired to put out incorrect provenance in order to benefit itself, there is exposure. It’s not buyer beware.”