Auction houses have typically papered over the nonpayments, reporting aborted transactions as true sales, even posting record prices and seldom correcting the record. This has misleadingly burnished their revenues, making the market seem hotter and propping up prices, industry experts said.
The practice has so alarmed the Chinese authorities, who worry that it could undermine the credibility of the market, that the auction association and state bodies like the ministries of commerce and culture stepped in a few years ago.
As part of a larger program of reforms, the association now collects nonpayment data and publishes its findings in an effort to expose malefactors. It not only encourages auction houses to blacklist buyers with a history of not paying, but also recommends that the houses require steep deposits from potential bidders. The government has canceled or suspended the licenses of 150 auction houses between 2008 and 2011 for a variety of problems, including the sale of fake items.
The stool and dressing table were a set, carved from jade and said to date from the Han Dynasty, about 2,000 years ago. Their sale at auction in Beijing two years ago drew US$33 million and lots of fanfare.
However, experts began pointing out that Chinese did not sit on chairs during the Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD). They sat on the floor.
Eventually, a leader of the jade trade in Pizhou, a village in Jiangsu Province, acknowledged that the pieces had been created by craftsmen there in 2010.
Wang Rumian, former president of the Pizhou Gemstone and Jade Industry Association, said in an interview last month that it had been the art dealers, not the craftsmen, who chose to pass off the set as ancient.
“It wasn’t made that well,” he said.
However, it was good enough to fool the Chinese art market and draw a record price for jade that year.
The trail of phony “antiques,” bogus paintings and fake bronzes winds throughout China these days. In Jingdezhen, a city in the rugged mountains of southeast China, small workshops produce exquisite reproductions of Ming and Qing Dynasty porcelain, the craftsmen going to some lengths to build the wood-fired kilns that help create the subtle textures and glazes.
In Yanjian, a dusty village in Henan Province, they use ammonia on bronze to induce corrosion and produce that same greenish, oxidized patina that comes from exposure, allowing a bell or ritual wine vessel made a few days ago to pass for an artifact unearthed from a tomb.
And in Beijing, Tianjin, Suzhou and Nanjing, highly skilled painters and calligraphers are replicating the brush strokes of revered masters.
So-called traditional Chinese paintings typically depict the natural beauty of mountains, rivers and forests in an ancient style, and, together with calligraphy, are the workhorses of China’s art market, accounting for nearly half the money taken in at auction last year. So, throughout the country, painters work to copy masters like Qi and Fu Baoshi (溥抱石).