With the boom in the Chinese economy comes a demand among the Chinese nouveau riche for fine art and antiquities. But all is not always what it appears to be. For generations, Chinese artisans have expertly crafted reproductions of ancient artifacts, but with the arrival of a Chinese moneyed class, the production has ramped up.
In a workshop strewn with plastic, metals and the sound of crickets, craftsmen in the village of Yanjian, in Henan Province, are busy producing bronze works: horses, daggers, bells and ritual vessels — and all made to look like ancient Chinese relics.
After creating molds and casting the objects in bronze, workers place them in acid tubs and bury them underground for months at a time, hoping to recreate the effects of aging and produce works that looks as if they had just been unearthed from an ancient tomb.
Craftsmen with access to the chemical formulas for Chinese artifacts are reproducing them with qualities good enough to fool all but the most knowledgeable experts.
“Of course, we douse them with chemicals and bury them,” said one of the guides at the Yanyunjian Bronze Company, explaining the company’s production techniques and referring to the tradition of reproducing ancient bronze objects. “But this is a lot less disgusting than what they did during the 1970s and 1980s. Back then, they would soak the stuff in urine and animal excrement.”
The counterfeiters also are coming up with new ways to fool authenticators: in some cases, new objects are created from old materials so that traditional age dating methods are fooled. In other cases, ceramics are subjected to radiation so that carbon-dating methods are misled.
And the web becomes more tangled, according to the report: provenance reports are sometimes doctored, authenticators are bribed and other means are used to convince auction houses of items’ legitimacy.
Scholars and authenticators are trained to identify fakes or forgeries. But Chinese counterfeiters, often with the aid of museum professionals and wealthy collectors, have been clever at finding old materials to game the system.
They irradiate ceramics to throw off carbon-dating techniques, or hire master mounters to separate an authentic inscription from an authentic painting and then commission a fake painting to accompany the authentic inscription and a fake inscription to accompany the authentic painting. The result is two partially authentic works where there was once one.
European and American markets are not immune from the impacts of these efforts, either. In some cases, forgers reportedly have sold their wares in European auctions in order to develop provenance for the pieces. Scholars also fear the impacts when collectors of the fakes and forgeries attempt to donate the items to universities and museums. According to former Harvard Art Museums curator Robert D. Mowry, “for serious scholars, prudence becomes ever more important. It’s frightening, but there are going to be lots of books published and people are going to assume that some things are authentic when they’re fake.” Mowry is a consultant on Chinese art for Christie’s auction house.
Some dealers bribe an authenticator, museum staffer or the descendant of an old master painter to go along with a scheme to convince an auction house that a fake work is real. Other scam artists doctor provenance records by, for instance, placing a replica in the auction catalog at a small auction house in Europe, or finding a way to get a fake work into an estate sale.
During the Times’ six month investigation of the world of Chinese art, the newspaper also discovered that though the auction market there appears to be strong, as many as one third of the reported sales never occurred. And while the art market worldwide is no stranger to fraud, the art market in China is operating in a very lightly regulated environment, having expanded too quickly for regulators to keep up and being rife with bribery and corruption.
Some government officials are acting on their concerns. In July, they closed a private museum in Hebei because they suspected that all 40,000 artifacts were fakes, according to the New York Times.
“This is the challenge right now,” said Wang Yannan, the president and director of China Guardian, the nation’s second-biggest auction house. “In the mind of every Chinese, the first question is whether it’s fake.”
For years, much of the forgery went unnoticed as works passed from buyer to buyer, their prices spiraling up. But, increasingly, high-profile scandals are exposing the extent of the fakery and sowing doubts about the larger market. In one case, three years ago, an oil painting attributed to the 20th-century artist Xu Beihong, which sold at auction for more than $10 million, turned out to have been produced 30 years after the artist’s death by a student during a class exercise at one of China’s leading arts academies.
National Public Radio conducted its own investigation of the Chinese market in 2011. They reported multiple examples of corruption in the Chinese auction world. According to Gong Jisui, formerly with Sotheby’s, “it’s really, really bad. For the classical Chinese paintings, most of the pieces are disputable,” he says. “Also, for modern Chinese paintings, there is a serious problem with authenticity issues.”
The auction market also is plagued by buyers who fail to pay after having won an item at auction. According to some, the problem increases as the hammer prices increase: the higher the value, the less likely the bidder is to pay. These practices started in the Chinese markets, but have been exported to European and American auctions where some bidders have failed to pay up.
Ma Weidu, a major collector based in Beijing, recounted how easy it still was in the 1980s to secure small artifacts. People gave them to him for nothing, he said, or traded them for a few cigarettes. Occasionally, he would pay a small fee.
“They’d say: ‘Take it all. All I want is a washing machine,'” he recalled.
The auctioning of art remained rare until the early 1990s, when the government lifted restrictions on the sale of cultural relics. Still, the art market did not begin to take off until 2004, fueled by rising incomes.
Now there are more than 350 Chinese auction houses that deal in fine arts. The two largest—Poly International Auction company, and China Guardian—are billion-dollar enterprises with offices in several cities, including Tokyo and New York, and close ties to the country’s ruling elite.