British Museum Chinese bronze vessel likely to be a fake

Chinese bronze gui vessel (1936.1118.65) showing the three bands of decoration with the animal heads in the upper band and the repairs to the foot. Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum

A Chinese bronze vessel at the British Museum, once thought to be three thousand years old, is likely to be a fake, according to investigation by the museum’s own scientists. But rather than proving worthless, the bronze vessel remains valuable as an artefact from a later – but still antique – period when reproduction of ancient vessels was a popular craft.

The bronze object was originally sold to the British Museum by the well-known collector George Eumorfopoulos in 1935. Like many such objects, it had passed between different art dealers and collectors.

Without any archaeological evidence to go by, the only sign of its origin was its appearance, including an inscription with the symbols “祖癸父丁”meaning “grandfather gui and father Ding” – that was typical for the Zhou Dynasty (1027-256 BC).

The shape indicated that it was a gui vessel, designed to hold food. But doubts began to emerge following comparison with other Zhou Dynasty vessels: the gui vessel had a more uneven rim, and an entire coating of a green patina (surface colouring) which did not match the appearance of most corroded bronze vessels from the Zhou Dynasty.

These observations prompted an investigation in 1970 using the dating technique of thermoluminescence, which showed that the vessel was unlikely to be so old. However, its precise age remained uncertain – the vessel appeared to be neither ancient nor modern, but something in-between.

More recently, the vessel came to the attention of Quangyu Wang, an expert in bronze casting methods in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research. “The age proposed did not feel right. It was the perfect opportunity to look at this,” she said in an interview with Heritage Portal.

With the latest imaging and other techniques, Wang has performed a much closer analysis of the vessel. She found several lines of evidence showing that the vessel was likely to have been created by the sand-casting method, which became prominent during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). These include unusual holes and indentations, plus the presence of a more sandy texture in the core material inside the handles of the vessel. The latter also contained quartz – the main component of sand – and high levels of the element phosphorus. The patina was found to contain ground malachite which had been applied to give the appearance of a naturally formed corrosion product of bronze.

The results add to a picture of the Song Dynasty as a time of enormous interest in the past, including a huge market for ancient objects – either originals or fakes. “There was a very active industry of making vessels to fool people. There are records of bronze vessels being treated with ox’s blood or being buried to make them look ancient,” said Sascha Priewe, Curator of the Asian art collection at the British Museum.

A Confuscionist revival was taking place, in which objects from the past held great significance as symbols of ancient values and traditions. There was a desire to recreate past rituals, and make use of objects from the end of the Western Zhou period. These were an important reminder of the emperor Zhou who ruled in the late first Milennium BC and was considered to be “good and very benevolent”, according to Priewe. Ironically, however, from the Song period onwards, gui-style vessels became popular for use as incense burners rather than for holding food – a tradition which continues to the present day in Chinese temples.

Wang also performed Raman spectroscopy on a sample taken from inside the vessel, which showed the presence of ‘amorphous carbon’. “That is an indication that it could have been used as an incense burner, but this is inconclusive”, Wang added. But whether the vessel was knowingly bought as a reproduction, or unwittingly thought to be an original from the Western Zhou period, is not known.

X-radiograph of the vessel showing repairs on the foot and the dark spots in the region of the rim that indicate porosity in the casting. Copyright: Trustees of the British Museum