Is it Genuine? Adventures in the Chinese Antiques Trade

Oct 16, 2013


Knowing that I once worked in the antiques trade in Britain, a friend recently asked my advice as to where to buy antiques in Suzhou. My answer was that if she is genuinely serious about collecting Chinese antiques she’d be better off waiting until she returned to her home country.

Indeed given Suzhou’s history, many visitors like to buy traditional style pieces as a souvenir of their time here. There are many outlets ranging from roadside stalls to luxurious stores inside high-end hotels offering what appear to be old pottery, paintings and jade. However, the fact is that most of these items will have been made very recently; a fact that the sellers may be loath to admit, however.

While China has a long history of producing fine ceramics and works of art, from the Opium Wars to the middle of the twentieth century many treasures were looted – first by the colonial powers and later by the retreating nationalist – or destroyed in war. After reform and opening, however, China has become much more stable and is once again a major economic power. As a result, many Chinese are interested in buying back their heritage, as evinced by the recent run of record prices achieved for Chinese pieces at auction. The consequence of this, however, is that the demand for antiques greatly exceeds supply…

In fact reproducing earlier styles or using older reign marks on pieces is nothing new. Many ceramics bearing Ming Chenghua marks were in fact made in the Kangxi period. Likewise during the Guangxu era around the turn of the 19th/20th centuries there was a marked Kangxi revival with many pieces being produced with Kangxi reign marks.

Strolling around Suzhou’s bird and flower market, one can find several stalls offering dusty, ancient looking vessels. The reality however, is that all of the pieces I’ve seen recently have been modern. The types of wares available vary from legitimate reproductions to pieces made and artificially aged with the deliberate attempt to deceive.

Legitimate copies of older wares are often a good buy, as long as they are priced accordingly. The gift shop in Suzhou museum, for example, offers some exquisite quality pieces echoing Qing ceramics. While not cheap by any means, they are very beautiful and may prove to be a good investment. Likewise young potters such as Bo and Alison Jia through their ‘Middle Kingdom’ line have continued the classic tradition of monochrome wares, producing excellent pieces in traditional styles but clearly marked as modern and showing some contemporary influence. Again their pieces are considered by many to have a good prospect of remaining collectable and are often bought for investment.

Given the slough of fakes on the market in China, many collectors are choosing to buy abroad but even this is not without risk. In addition to the older reproductions produced in the Guangxu and Republic eras, there are increasing numbers of sellers shipping new fakes from China overseas, often to be sold on auction sites such as eBay, only for many of them to be bought by Chinese collectors and to return to their country of origin.

There are several strategies used by dishonest sellers, but the most obvious is the ‘hit and run’ tactic. This is where a seller will list several interesting looking items claiming that they were either unearthed in a recent house-clearance or that they are from the estate of a recently deceased relative. Once the pieces are sold, however, the seller will empty their PayPal account and disappear, long before the buyers have the chance to have their purchases authenticated. A large number of high-end fakes are processed through seemingly legitimate sellers in the US and UK too, the quality of the pieces being such that they often go undetected until too late.

Whilst it’s never entirely possible to avoid the traps and end up with a fake (several experienced collectors I know have been fooled themselves), there are ways to minimize the risk.

When buying in China, it is best to treat all pieces as being modern and value them for their decorative appeal rather than as an investment. Equally don’t be afraid to haggle; when seeing a foreign face, it’s not unusual for sellers to chance a high opening price, but if you stick to your guns you should often be able to secure the piece for much less.

If buying online eBay, despite my previous caveats, is a great place to find pieces if you are prepared to be patient. By trawling through items simply described as ‘Chinese vase’ or ‘oriental pot’ it is still possible to find genuine pieces which are fresh to the market. It’s a time consuming business, however, and you may have to take the gamble on bidding on something based only on a fuzzy picture and a one-line description. As with all such risky transactions you’d be wise never to bid more than you are prepared to lose.

Indeed buying in your home country has another benefit. If you do manage to secure a genuinely old piece here in China, it may be illegal for you to take it home when you leave. Pieces made before 1949 can’t be exported unless they have been appraised and issued a ‘jian ding’ export seal (a red wax seal applied to the base). According to information on Jan-Erik Nilsson’s excellent Gotheborg site such pieces which are approved for export largely date from the mid twentieth century and the oldest approved pieces reported are no earlier than Guangxu period (1875-1908).

Given the risks involved then, it may seem not worth to bother trying to collect Chinese antiques and yet it is the uncertainty which makes it such a fascinating field for research. For ceramics in particular you can spend a lifetime learning the subtle features which differentiate the real from the reproduction and yet scholars in this area are still routinely surprised and often fail to reach a consensus when a high profile item comes to the market.

As well as the risk of financial loss, there is always the chance of unearthing a previously overlooked gem and it is this, as well as a love for Chinese culture and aesthetics that keeps us coming back for more. If I haven’t succeeded in dissuading you from buying Chinese antiques I’d suggest you should arm yourselves with knowledge before handing over any money. My own area of interest is ceramics and the best web resource for this field is gotheborg.com. This site offers a wealth of information including pictures of modern Chinese marks, a comprehensive glossary, and queries submitted by readers. There’s also a discussion board but a paid membership is needed to gain full access. When it comes to books, He Li’s Chinese Ceramics: The New Standard Guide is probably the best general introduction while Margaret Medley’s The Chinese Potter offers an excellent study of Chinese pottery from both historical and technical perspectives.
 


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