Friday, 27 May 2016

Flattery or Forgery? Difficulties of Collecting Chinese Art By Marta Olszewska

Chinese collectors crowd Western auctions and galleries fervently trying to bargain. Not only do they buy artworks: reference literature is just as important in a country where both books and scholars suffered greatly during the Cultural Revolution. This is the new generation of collectors, dealers and curators trying to fill the knowledge gap. They feel more confident to buy art in Europe and America hoping this is enough of a proof of provenance. Unfortunately, most dealers and collectors active in the field of Chinese porcelain are well aware of the fact that over 90% of pieces on the market are fakes. Apparently the issue concerns not only porcelain, but paintings, sculpture and other mediums just as well. 

Those copies of earlier pieces are sold as art on their own right and rightfully so, as long as they go on the market labelled for what they are. The exceptionally high numbers of fakes are alarming especially for new inexperienced collectors who see their purchase as an investment. Unfortunately "the majority of pieces we see in auction houses came out  from the Jingdezhen kilns in the last five years," as said by dealer with over 40 years of experience, who nonetheless wishes to remain anonymous.

Local kilns in Jingdezhen in the Jiangxi province have been producing fine china for the past 1700 years. The city is known as the Porcelain Capital and remains one of the most famous centres of porcelain production today. There are about 10,000 private and commercial kilns producing high quality copies using high resolution images of original pieces. As an example, copies of the vase sold in Bainbridges auction house for $83,000,000 appeared in Jingdezhen shops within weeks after the sale. These reproductions are the only pieces available on the markets of Jingdezhen. A whole local museum is dedicated to displaying copies. The only original pieces in Jingdezhen are reconstructed from the discarded pieces found around the old Ming kilns and displayed in the local Museum of Imperial Porcelain.

Shocking as it all may sound, forging art in China is as old as Chinese art itself. The art of Qing period (1644-1911) is in many cases inspired by works from Ming dynasty (1368-1644). In this understanding, copying a great piece is paying a tribute to the old master, but putting one’s name on it would signify the conceited attitude of the maker and result in the loss of face. As many works of art produced for an emperor or a wealthy dignitary were considered his property, no artist dared to put their signature on the pieces, making it ever more difficult to date and attribute them.

Considering China’s long tradition in forging art as well as a history of wars, looting and the hell of the Cultural Revolution in which countess masterpieces perished, it is difficult to be surprised with the amount of copies in circulation. In the past several years the boom on the Chinese art market immensely increased their quality. Money is not the only reason for that. Artisans have always been highly regarded in Chinese society and competition between millions of them results in those high standards. They may not earn much as the lowest link of the selling chain, but in China the ‘face’ and social respect is utmost important. 

The artisans go to great lengths to produce perfect copies: old clay and discarded shards from the historic kilns are grinded down and remade into new pieces- then sold as Song or Ming Dynasty items. Foreign antiques collectors in China are often presented with authenticity certificates of those pieces by the shop keepers. But what they should always keep in mind is that in order to protect the national heritage, from 2009 it is against the law of the People’s Republic of China to export any pre 1900 artworks. Any attempt of exporting real antiques out of the country might end up in Chinese jail.

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