Pablo Picasso once proclaimed, "We all know that art is not truth." Collectors visiting China quickly become even more cynical. With art here, there is no truth.
Nobody knows that better than Dick Wang, who enjoys a rare perspective on Beijing's red-hot art and antiques market. From the second-floor window of his gallery, Wang looks down on Liulichang Street, an antiques shopping area popular with tourists and locals alike. Many visit the stylish Wang & Co. to show off treasures they've mined from nearby stores. "All of them are fake," he says flatly.
Getting burned is common, and not even Wang—who worked for five years as a Chinese art expert at Sotheby's in London and New York—is immune. A few years back he bought a ceramic Tang dynasty horse for $12,000—a steal, or so he thought. It turned out to be a well-made but worthless forgery. "I call that my tuition," he says with a smile.
Counterfeiting is hardly new in the art world, but observers say the problem is only getting worse. Bogus pieces constitute as much as 80 percent of the value of goods for sale in Hong Kong and Beijing, and are even showing up in museums, auction houses, and high-end galleries. That's because the artisans making these phony objects are becoming more skilled. "Telling the fakes from the real thing is sometimes impossible," says Alfreda Murck, a former associate curator for Asian art at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art who now writes books about Chinese art in Beijing. While nobody knows the size of the black market, some experts believe it could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. One Beijing-based art consultant (who does business with the Chinese government and wishes to remain anonymous) says, "When it comes to fraud, China is probably the world's capital."
Liulichang Street, Beijing's antiques alley, looks anything but ominous. A few blocks south of Tiananmen Square, it has scores of tile-roofed wooden shops displaying old furniture, bric-a-brac, and colorful pottery. Tourists stroll the cobbled lane, as they have done for ages. Street touts pounce on potential marks, thrusting photo albums. "You want Qing?" asks one, pointing to a picture of porcelain. "Yuan and Song pieces, one thousand years old, very cheap!" Glazed plates, bronze statues, and gigantic vases are offered, all at prices that are unbelievable—if the merchandise is real. According to Wang, next to none of it is. "Ninety-five percent of the stuff you find on the streets is fake," he says.
What's true in Beijing is probably more so in the antiques markets that have spread across China. Huge showrooms in the border areas near Hong Kong and Macao tempt bargain hunters from the wealthy former colonies. At the Chinese Antique Market north of Macao, a hundred tin-roofed stalls bulge with dusty tables, baskets, and carved wood panels. Trucks arrive piled high with old dressers and cabinets, most of which are refinished and sold on the premises. But there is also a huge supply of reproductions, an area where honest shops tread carefully. The Yong Chang Furniture Plant of Classical Arts avoids using terms like antique. "These are pieces made in the old style," the proprietor says instead.