'Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery'

Charles Caleb Colton (1780-1832)

Collecting Chinese art has always required a lot of knowledge and - more recently - money. Chinese collectors are becoming wealthier and more mobile than ever. One could speculate this is the best time to start a collection of Chinese art, be it for the love of it or purely as an investment. Leaving this dilemma aside, let’s try to outline a few reasons why collecting Chinese art should be such a difficult task and provide a few simple guidelines to follow. Shedding light on the history of Chinese collecting and its cultural background will make it easier to understand the reasons behind facts and behaviours we would at first condemn.

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. 

Despite the above being common knowledge, the subject sparked up a few heated debates, fuelled by the recent events in China such as closing of the Jibaochai museum in Hebei in northern China, built at a cost of 540 ml Yuan ($88 ml). A local official told the Global Times the institution had no qualification to be a museum as its collections are fake. On the other hand, museums mushrooming all over the country built to house private and state-funded collections are an interesting phenomenon. Contemporary art pieces can easily be verified with the artist, but antiques are sourced in all sorts of more or less problematic ways. The local market can barely keep up with the demand, but buying in the West often poses challenges with the ever-changing import regulations. Local officials in China do their best to prevent the raiding of ancient tombs, but what they certainly have the least control over are the skilled artisans producing copies of exquisite quality.

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.

Qianlong Vase 53 million

Figure 2: Qianlong Imperial yang cai reticulated double-walled vase with six-character reign mark, c.1740
Porcelain, 16 inches.
This vase was sold at Bainbridges auction house in 2010.
Copyright: Press AssociationImage Source

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.

This approach is not exclusive to Chinese mentality. Countless Japanese porcelain pieces in the 19th century were signed in Chinese with reign marks completely not corresponding to the true age or origin of the piece. This practice targeted the Western collectors hungry for exotic oriental objects. The Romans copied old Greek sculptures and throughout the history of art various periods of historicism resulted in a lot of confusion, taking as an example the 19th century’s fascination with gothic and ‘restorations’ undertaken especially on architecture and sculpture, something that today we would easily classify as acts of vandalism.

The tradition of collecting art in China began really early. The Song dynasty (960-1279) emperors created the core of the collection and first catalogues of their possessions (in the modern understanding of the word). Later generations contributed to this collection and detailed specifications and depictions were compiled systematically under subsequent dynasties. Emperors used professional advisers: scholars and collectors themselves, who informed the monarch about collections coming up on sale or noteworthy pieces in private hands. Cases of mistakes and fakes finding their way into the imperial collection happened even then- sometimes by accident and sometimes the mediator kept the precious piece to himself, sending a perfect copy to the Forbidden City. There were cases when the emperor resorted to forcing the owner of an object to sell or donate it by either pointing out negligence of their duties or potential danger of theft or fire, indicating it would only be safe in the walls of the Imperial Palace.

The imperial collection was a great propaganda tool, one of the ways to control the people under the command of the Son of Heaven. No one understood that better than Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795), a great art connoisseur and eager collector but also a Manchu– a foreigner ruling over the Han majority. His collector’s tastes ranged from paintings, jade and porcelain, to ancient bronze ritual vessels from Shang, Zhou, and Han dynasties. These pieces were especially important because of their antiquity, ritual and symbolic value: possession of such objects sanctified the power of a dynasty and losing them would foretell its decline. Inscriptions found on them were equally important for studies and further symbolic reasons. Writing in general is a powerful tool and signing a piece did not necessarily mean authorship. In the Hall of the Three Rarities (after three precious calligraphies hanging there), Qianlong emperor often signed, sealed or inscribed poems on early scrolls as a way of expressing his appreciation. It was his private studio where he took the time to enjoy his collection. His appreciation of Mughal jades first led to increased import of those items from India, and later stimulated local production of objects in similar style.

Qianlong Emperor at his Writing Desk

Figure 3: The Emperor Qianlong in his study, before 1767
Attributed to Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) and Jin Tingbiao (active at Court 1757-1767)
Ink on paper, 100.2 x 63 cm
Copyright: Palace Museum in BeijingImage Source

Of course there could be no serious competition to the imperial collection, but through the Ming and Qing the scholars and literati swapped paintings and calligraphed poems with each other. Even some of the more ambitious and greedy eunuchs employed for the emperors were said to acquire substantial collections. We often learn about them when the unlucky owners fell out of grace and their possessions were confiscated.

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.

How to avoid disappointment and help to stop the dishonest practise of forging? It seems like it pays off to consult dealers and museums before making a purchase. Dealers and curators appraise countless pieces and it is in their best interest to retain a healthy market. "It all comes down to looking at things and years of experience in handling the pieces" says Lori Luo from Artfind. Collectors do not perceive dealers as their first point of advice before they bid in auctions, presumably because they expect them to bid against them or request a commission for the advice. However dealers always keep a watchful eye on the market and know when items of their interest go under the hammer. Curators may not be able to assist in consultations regarding the market value of an object, but years of experience in handling and researching original objects with reliable provenance definitely make them a trustworthy source of authentications. 

Is there a way to avoid mistakes without consulting accredited specialists? Dealers advise only to purchase pieces previously sold through respectable auction houses (Christie's, Sotheby's and Bonhams). "I personally would never buy a piece of genuine Chinese porcelain that wasn't photographed, and documented in a Christie's or Sotheby’s catalogue dating from before 1990" says the anonymous source quoted above. In case of other auction houses it is good to look into the background of the relevant experts to make sure they are reliable appraisers.

In the end, it is all down to the experience and confidence of both collector and seller. It is doubtful the malpractice of selling copies as originals will ever stop as long as there will be collectors willing to believe what they purchase off a hole in the wall in China is a genuine antique. Buying online is certainly not a good idea either, especially for inexperienced collectors.


Cover Image: The kilns at Jingdezhen, Image courtesy Grace Nickel, Canada Image Source