“I’ve seen 700 to 800 people in a painting workshop, with a clear division of labor, making the works of Qi Baishi,” says Zhang Jinfa (張進發), a professional arts authenticator based in Beijing.
A study last year by Artron, an art data company based in China, estimated that as many as 250,000 people in about 20 Chinese cities may be involved in producing and selling fakes. Visits to several of these cities in recent months documented that such production centers are thriving.
Thousands of people in Jingdezhen, the ancient center of porcelain making, are employed by its bustling workshops, where bare-chested craftsmen sit hunched over, spinning clay into ancient forms. Down the production line, painters dip their brushes in ink and copy the outlines of flowers or traditional Chinese patterns onto the pottery. Often, the images are taken directly from auction catalogs that are pressed open on a nearby table.
In China, the tradition of copying reflects more than a simple reverence for the past; it is an appreciation that beauty has been captured in a fashion worth emulating. Unlike the West, where “the shock of the new” is admired, China values tradition, and its best-selling works often pay homage to, and look like, those made hundreds of years earlier.
At prestigious art schools, students engage in what the Chinese refer to as lin mo, or imitating the masters. Forgery and fraud are not necessarily part of the tradition, experts say, although famous painters like Chang, who 30 years ago in Taipei, took pleasure in fooling the experts.
“Chang Dai-chien felt he was an equal to the old masters,” said Maxwell Hearn, chairman of the Asian art department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “And so, the true test was whether he could copy them. ”
One story that illustrates Chang’s playful approach to copying concerns his 1967 trip to review an exhibition of the works of Shitao (石濤), a 17th-century painter, at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. His tour guides were proud to show him the works of such a famous painter, who had died more than two centuries earlier.
So they were surprised when Chang began to laugh and point to various works on the wall, saying: “I did that. And that.”
“That is how Chang Da-chien talked,” said Marshall Wu (武佩聖), a retired professor at the University of Michigan who first met Chang in the 1960s. “You never really knew if he was serious or kidding, but he did a lot of Shitao forgeries.”
Chang’s work now serves as a model for a painter in Beijing, Liang Zhaojin (梁兆金), who studied with the master and now works in his own classical style that is based on that tradition.
“I am honoring Master Chang by inheriting and promoting his style,” he said.
It is easier to detect fakes, of course, when the artists are still alive. Artron recently collected 100 works attributed to a popular painter, He Jiaying (何家英), and, with his help, determined that about 80 were fakes.
“Basically, everything is controlled by middlemen,” said Wu Shu (吳樹), a writer who has posed as an art dealer as part of his research and published three books on the subject, including Who Is Swindling China?
“They generally divide the goods into three categories: The best-quality things go to the auction market; mid-level works go to the antiquity markets; and lower-level things go to flea markets,” he said.