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The Age of the Magnificent Fake

The Age of the Magnificent Fake

I thought you might enjoy a peak behind the curtain about this mysterious and weird part of the fine art and antiques business. Where there is great money there is usually a fair amount of funny business or misdirection. I use misdirection to help you understand how this process is perceived by many of the practitioners. If they can fool you they are smart.

Several important 19th century artists started their careers making fake ancient carvings. They were relatively easy to sell. I have handled an “ancient” & beautiful carving of a Roman god in sienna marble. The scholars we spoke with believed it was probably made in the 15th or 16th century when interest in art, scholarship, and, design blossomed into the Renaissance. Collectors far exceeded the supply. Most classical Roman statues were often copies of Greek originals. A tip is that a local scholar explained the Greek original works are generally leaner than the Roman statues.

the two cultures had different thoughts about expressions of power and beauty. John Ruskin, a Victorian art critic and arbiter of taste believed the older an object was the purer and more beautiful it was. For him the high water mark was 4th century BC Greece. From then on downhill. Today the market for these beautiful objects is complicated by well meaning laws that don’t seem to understand what the market actually looks like mountains of insignificant objects, or how to achieve the result they seek. I believe they seek the return to the country of origin of important works. Presently I rather doubt the existence of many great antiquities forgers. The material when real is hard to sell and the majority of collectors seek good independent advice as they have no wish to be left holding the “bag”. Authenticity is established by aesthetic grounds using a well educated and trained authority. Much the same as fine and rare paintings.

Today the wizardry is concentrated on Chinese objects, particularly porcelain. Objects that used to sell for hundreds or a few thousand can on a good day bring 7 figures. A little known fact is that often enough these pieces are never paid for. You read about the amazing sale. You almost never read about it going unpaid for. I love furniture but do not consider myself expert enough for oriental objects, particularly the rare ones. I have happily consulted acknowledged experts for most of my career. I am a true generalist. An avalanche of ancient Chinese burial material started hitting the market in the early 90’s. Things that were unobtainable started showing up all over. Clarence Shangraw, the retired Asian Art Museum director helped us authenticate the pieces. In about 1998 he came back from Asia and was alarmed. The short story is that the universities were involved in helping create convincing reproductions. Ancient bricks were remade into rare, at times unique objects. They would pass thermoluminescence a test that established an approximate time frame for the objects kiln firing. Later we would see pieces that were literally marked for where the test sample should be taken from. Tests were created to detect the use of binding agents but ultimately the entire market was crippled by this fraud. Today Chinese porcelain is where the money is. The copyists have opened old original porcelain clay pits. source and manufacture glazes in the ancient manner with original sources for pigments used in glazes. Scientific tests involve destroying a sample and porcelain is not a good candidate for collecting samples. Today a good number of the signs that a piece is original have been overcome so even the best experts in the world spend great amounts of time trying to decide if a piece is real or one of these best quality fakes. My advisor told me to concentrate on provenance and to only buy from older collections. I recently saw a great collection of Blue and white porcelain from an old collection. My current expert did not bother looking twice at the 70 plus pieces. Even if there was something real the market had soured. I looked again and noticed the quality was simply ok. The mountain of fakes had killed the market. For extraordinary pieces mostly made for the Emperor’s household the market is still strong. For average or much faked material you are out of luck.

The classical Chinese furniture market took off like a rocket. Particularly for pieces made of rare hardwoods. I can’t remember exactly when this happened but I can remember well the fall out. For furniture dealers wear and tool marks are how to discern if construction is consistent with style and age. A very clever man used hardwood found in Vietnam believed to be extinct. Primitive saws mounted on shaking tables created convincing illusions. Some auction houses abandoned this field. Others withdrew their guarantees. After a fair amount of upset the market continued again increasingly relying on the history of a piece. Current law limits most hardwood sales for export, another wrinkle. The belief that by commercially damaging an object will somehow restore nature even if the tree was harvested centuries ago. In a way they hope to unring the bell with admittedly comical results. We see this thought ripple through the trade and living in California puts us on the front edge of most of these experiments. To date no animal has been revived or stands of ancient trees recreated. There is no question poaching is a huge problem but for political reasons it is unlikely action will be taken in time.

The auction-house role in nonsense. The old joke goes that people working auctions are hardly paid, so they find other ways to secure financial advantage. If they own an object they might over optimistically catalog the piece. It is fair to say that odd things happen to very good pieces. One trick is the fast hammer, opened and closed in the same breath. Another trick is to substitute or lose the consignment. The original owner is paid the reserve less fees and the piece moves on to another distant venue with correct descriptions and new owners. In the old days the wise guys acted as a ring. Technically illegal but nearly impossible to prove. The message was simple. If something was good to great they would do all they could to avoid private parties from being successful bidders. At times the auctioneer would participate. A private sale was held after the auction. The parties that participated avoided open competition. The proceeds of the insiders were split. It was possible to be paid and buy nothing. As usual, no end to nonsense.

I recommend you avoid high pressure sales and take with a large grain of salt the opinions of dealers about things that they won’t profit from. With thoughtful and careful collecting you can enrich the quality of your life. 

Happy Hunting!

Howard @

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