As the demand for Chinese art and antiques heats up, so do counterfeiters' kilns — pumping out fake porcelain good enough to fool not just tourists, but dealers and auction houses too
Karen Mazurkewich
| Credit: Karen Mazurkewich

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.

He respects the fine line between fraud—passing a forgery off as the real thing—and copying, which is considered a genuine art form in China. Indeed, says the Beijing consultant, "the best Chinese artists always learned by copying. They did so for centuries, and that's still the case." Nowhere is this clearer than in Jingdezhen, a grim town in the southeast. Under its gray haze, Jingdezhen resembles any other ugly industrial city in China, except for the magnificent 12-foot-tall vases lining the main street, home to the world's largest porcelain market. Alleys branch off in every direction, heaped high with plates, bowls, figurines, Mao saltshakers, and Mickey Mouse casseroles. Some shops carry finer pieces that seem misplaced amid the kitsch: thousand-year-old urns, Qing goblets, and ancient plates with intricately cracked glaze. They look authentic, but all are copies.

The high-fire technique of making porcelain was invented in China around the seventh century. In Jingdezhen, it became a sophisticated art form that reached its zenith during the Ming (1368—1644) and Qing (1644—1912) dynasties. All imperial ware—most prized by collectors today—was made here by the country's best craftsmen. Ironically, these treasured plates and bowls were, centuries ago, copies themselves. Teams labored for years to meticulously reproduce massive dinner sets for the emperor and his court.

Jingdezhen's artistry declined over various periods of upheaval and was all but forgotten during the decades of Communist austerity. By 1991, 30 of its 32 state-run porcelain factories had shut down as cheaper manufacturers across Asia and in Central America entered the industry. In recent years, however, investors from Hong Kong and Taiwan have revived many studios to create reproductions of imperial pieces for collectors around the globe. Nowadays, an estimated 150 factories and 100 kilns—some the size of football fields, able to process 10,000 pieces in a single firing—churn out more than a million pieces of porcelain each day. A few wind up in the world's greatest museums and collections, either intentionally or through a convoluted trail of resales.

Huang Yunpeng is one of the remarkable characters rebuilding Jingdezhen's reputation. After 20 years spent overseeing repairs at the Jingdezhen Museum of Ceramic History, he is now the director of the Jiayang Ceramic Co.—and a master copier. Huang's Hong Kong partners send him auction catalogues and museum books showing objects he can reproduce and sell cheaply. You'll pay only $300 for his very convincing version of a Ming jar that sold for nearly $6 million at auction in Hong Kong last fall.

Huang trains scores of workers to reproduce patterns favored by housewives in Taipei and Chinese newlyweds in New York. These days, talent is supplemented by computers. Customers scan images of priceless designs into their computers and send them by e-mail. Technology has also been a boon to cheats. Authenticators place great value on the chop, an intricate Chinese character used to sign ancient pieces and one way to tell fakes from the real thing. But now chops can be copied by laser and e-mailed to ceramic shops.

Counterfeiters determined to pass their wares off as venerable artifacts have plenty of other tricks to fool the experts. "They know a dozen ways to cheat you," my guide in Jingdezhen says with authority. "You rub the piece in chemicals or animal urine to dull the shine. You put dirt and ash in the cracks to age it."

Although spokespeople for both Christie's and Sotheby's insist that fraudulent pieces rarely make it past the gavel, several longtime employees, speaking on condition of anonymity, concede that well-crafted copies regularly slip through. "Every auction has fakes," says the Beijing consultant, who once worked for Sotheby's. Some sources believe that 60 to 70 percent of items passing for antiques in Hong Kong shops are modern copies. "Even dealers are fooled," says Karin Weber, who runs a gallery on Hollywood Road, a fashionable Hong Kong street packed with antiques shops.

The most dependable method for testing antiques is thermoluminescence (TL). The process, explains Doreen Stoneham, head of England's Oxford Authentication, the world's foremost TL lab, involves heating a small sample of powder from an object. A faint light signal emitted by the powder indicates the length of time since the piece was fired. Unfortunately, this is no longer sufficient to detect fakes. Counterfeiters can predict where on the objects the tests are likely to be done and inject radioactive material there, Wang says.

"There's no scientific test that is entirely accurate," acknowledges Pola Antebi, director of the Chinese Ceramics & Works of Art Department at Christie's in Hong Kong. She and her colleagues rely on their senses to sift out fakes. "We consider so many factors: the shape; the color of the glaze and whether it's consistent with the period in question; the glaze texture; the weight of the piece; and the mark [chop]," she says. "We look at Chinese ceramics all day, every day"—experience that, she maintains, gives experts the edge. "Forgers haven't had the privilege of handling authentic pieces. It takes years to get the sense of it."

Still, the phony goods creep through. "There are fantastic forgeries out there—that's no secret," says Murck, who spent 12 years at the Met. She says tremendous scrutiny surrounds every potential purchase. "We could spend months on a single piece. We'd test it and study its history."

One reason Chinese art is so susceptible to fraud, however, is that few pieces possess the kind of ownership trail common in the West. Sales in China are rarely recorded, the artists seldom attributed. Pieces are more commonly assigned to periods of craft, such as the various dynasties. Antebi describes extensive vetting procedures, including consultation with investigators who monitor the latest forgery methods. "We can't talk about the techniques for fear of tipping off forgers," she says. Nevertheless, she allows, "Nothing is foolproof."

Though the risks are high, even experts like Murck and Wang admit to spending weekends at Panjiayuan, dubbed Beijing's Junk Market for obvious reasons. Huge piles of newly minted "Qing dynasty" wares sit alongside Mao memorabilia. Yet there is always the hope of finding a precious Ming plate among the junk. Wang once bought a Qing snuff bottle here for $6,000. A month later, he sold it for $50,000. Wang says cheerfully, "You lose some, but sometimes you win."

If the world's great art experts can't ferret out the fakes flooding the Chinese art market, what chance does a novice collector have?The best advice is to use common sense. "All the obvious rules apply," says Beijing dealer Dick Wang. "If you're offered a priceless Ming vase for a hundred dollars, it's a fake."

China offers no laws and little protection for consumers who are cheated. Even Hong Kong lacks the kind of associations common among dealers in the West, says Hong Kong gallery owner Karin Weber. As a result, it's safest to deal with reputable shops. "Ask around before you buy," she says; hotel concierges are a good source. Weber also suggests visiting many stores and getting a feel for the pieces. "Buyers should look through books, get educated about prices, and compare, compare, compare."

Weber runs a side business guiding art-buying trips just across the border from Hong Kong, where furniture can be half the price. "If you buy a couple of pieces, you make back what you spent to take the trip," she says. "People enjoy looking for themselves, but they still like the comfort of having someone experienced along." For information, contact Karin Weber Antiques (852/2544-5004, fax 852/2545-2348;