Written by James C. S. Lin.

In the past decade China has become the second largest economy in the world. The number of Chinese billionaires is increasing rapidly. Chinese invest heavily in the art market, their purchases regularly breaking records; it is very difficult to ignore this kind of news. Property, the stock market and antiques are three major areas for investment in China. However, the government has strict rules about property purchase and the stock market in China is unstable at the moment. Therefore, investment in the art market has become a major activity in China. Treasure hunting has become a national pastime because many people harbour a fantasy that spending a few pounds will lead to enormous treasure. Antiques Road Show-style programmes are frequently shown on TV, but are much exaggerated and more dramatic.

Antiques are used for investment, money laundering and sometimes bribes. This high demand has led to a burgeoning market for fake antiques. Chinese have a long history of making forgeries which are produced on production lines in workshops. In ancient times, they used images from woodblock prints as inspiration and dyed the resulting artworks with tea or acid to make them look old. In the early 20th century they copied excavated objects, sold the forgeries to foreigner treasure hunters. In more recent years they turned to academic research results and made use of modern technology to create replicas. In addition, in order to convince buyers, the forgers create fake provenances, produce books that support their claims to authenticity, or even advertise their objects in well-known magazines. Some have even presented their objects to museums as gifts or loans in order to add some credibility. Perhaps more dangerous are those people that purchase genuine objects from famous auction houses only to sell on reproductions back to market some years later. For all of these reasons, the Chinese art market is in chaos. Some auction houses in China sells fake objects as a way of laundering money. Some collectors claim to be experts, but have collections that are all fake too.

So, how easy is it to separate the fake from the genuine and who are the real experts in this field? Art reflects politics, religion and the economy, so each period has its own style and features, ie, shape and motifs, materials that were employed and how they were produced. Clearly, knowledge of art history is essential. Later copies might mimic the shape and decoration but it is hard to copy the original materials and skills. Scientific tests can only help to identify fake from genuine with certain degree of accuracy. For example, when verifying ceramics the area that a sample will be taken for the test is usually at the base of an object. Chinese have collected shards from abandoned kiln sites, including complete base sections. It is possible to create a whole object around the genuine artifact, so that the test result will genuine, although the rest of the object is fake. It is unlikely that any collector would allow anyone to drill a hole into the main body of an expensive vase that they have purchased.

I have visited many rich collectors but it can be very embarrassing when you are invited to examine their collection. Top collectors always have a team of experts working for them. The majority of rich people purchase for their own pleasure. They are often enthusiastic rather than knowledgeable, finding it difficult to admit that they do not have a trained eye. However, finding a good adviser will save your money and face, so the next question is where are the experts? It has to be someone who has a sound knowledge of art history with handing experience of both genuine and fake objects. This is definitely an area where one should remember that old adage: “Buyer beware”.

James C S Lin is responsible for the Asian art collection at the Fitzwilliam Museum. He organises exhibitions, publishes academic research, teaches, gives lectures to the public. As a scholar he has published articles on jades and painting. Image Credit: CC by Paul Hudson/Flickr.