Strolling through Beijing’s Panjiayuan Market, it’s easy to imagine you’ve entered an antique treasure trove. Hawkers there sell blue and white porcelain, jade trinkets, and Cultural Revolution-era memorabilia. If the prices seem too good to be true, that’s because they are. In the past, it was possible to pick up some rare finds at Panjiayuan; today, almost all the “antiques” on sale were actually made just a few years, months, or weeks ago.
Fake Chinese antiques aren’t only limited to Beijing’s dirt markets; they have also appeared at auction houses and in museum collections worldwide.
“I have a certain admiration for those making perfect copies. It’s not something that can be embarked on without spending a lot of money and effort,” says Lark Mason, a Chinese antiques expert who runs his own auction house and appears regularly on Antiques Roadshow. “You have to search out the right materials and have the skill set and tools to recreate the exact process of how the object was originally made.”
Mason, who specializes in Chinese furniture, explains the lengths master forgers must go to in order to copy antique chairs: “It’s extremely difficult to replicate objects made in the 17th century using modern timber. They need to fell old growth trees of a certain dimension and take the moisture out the traditional way, instead of drying the wood in a commercial kiln. They must find carvers and joiners with the same skill level as imperial craftsmen. Then, they need to replicate the wear that comes with people sitting down with different amounts of force over a long period of time, and the effects of exposure to light over several hundred years.”
Today, over $14 billion is spent every year on art and antiques in China — that accounts for around a quarter of the market worldwide. The most prized Chinese antiques sell for tens of millions of dollars in China’s domestic auctions.
A growing number of Chinese people have the money to buy antiques, and like Westerners before them, they are, says Mason, “from a cultural perspective, from an aesthetic perspective, but also from nationalistic pride” choosing to purchase antiquities from their own heritage.
As the market for antiques grows, the techniques used by the fakers are growing increasingly sophisticated. Where once they would simply fume scrolls with tea, today, they are raising bugs and mice for the purpose of adding bite marks to pieces. Instead of relying on a quick dirt rub for faked pottery, they are digging several feet underground to find clay with a similar chemical make-up to the clay used in the time period when the original object was made. Reproduced ceramics are buried for months, even years, to give them the same appearance and smell as artifacts found in ancient tombs, while chemical baths are used to age bronzes.
Shapes are replicated nearly perfectly with the help of 3D scanning technologies. Intricate designs and seals (red marks made with printing stamps that appraisers have traditionally placed great importance on as a way to authenticate objects) can be copied by lasers with great precision.
But it’s not just the fakers who are using technology. The authenticators are also harnessing high-tech tools in their fight against fakes. Some use radiocarbon, thermoluminescence, and other techniques to accurately date the antiques. Others concentrate on identifying signs of artificial aging.
However, these technologies are not infallible guarantees. Forgers have been known to take bases from less valuable but genuinely old porcelain and reproduce better quality vases around it. Since most porcelain dating tests sample from the unglazed bottom, this method is used to dupe the testers.
“Nowadays, a lot of people are repairing valuable broken porcelain with a resin that’s almost impossible to detect at first. It makes it look like it was never damaged and a pristine piece is worth a lot more than a piece with even a hairline crack on it. It’s only several months or years later when the resin begins to change color that you can detect it — but by then it’s too late; the buyer has already bought it,” says Zhang.
Enterprising, if dishonest, businessmen will continue to produce fakes as long as there is a market for them. But there are signs already that the Chinese public is beginning to grow wary. Classes teaching students how to spot forgeries have popped up all over the country and while records continue to be set at auction, this year has also seen many lots go unsold or buyers refusing to pay up because, on closer examination, they believe the item is a fake. “It takes time,” says Mason, “but eventually the places that are abusing public trust are going to suffer the consequences.”