Experts say some Chinese dealers and consignors slip works into auction by doctoring old sales catalogs to invent a provenance, and — if all else fails — paying an auction house specialist to include a suspect item.
Auction houses need impressive consignments to attract collectors, and experts say that, in their desperation for inventory, many have ordered forgeries.
“I would say 80 percent of the lots at small and medium-sized auction houses are replicas,” said Xiao Ping, (蕭平) a prominent painter who formerly worked as an authentication adviser to the Nanjing Museum.
Qi was a master of the ordinary. In the summer of 1957, with his health deteriorating, the painter went into the studio of his traditional courtyard residence in Beijing, dabbed his brush in ink and created a portrait of a flower, a long-stemmed raspberry-and-yellow peony.
Three months later, he was dead, at 93.
“That was the last work he completed,” said his grandson, Qi Bingyi (齊秉頤), who keeps the painting locked in a safe at his home in Beijing.
“I have it right here. Do you want to see it?” he said, before unrolling the work for visitors last month.
However, death seems to have done little to curb Qi Baishi’s productivity, according to auction records and interviews with experts and his family. They indicate that rising values and his popularity as one of China’s greatest modern painters have led to a flood of fake Qi Baishis on the market.
Qi Baishi, born in 1864 into a peasant family, herded cows and worked as a carpenter’s apprentice before taking up painting at 27. Fame came a few decades later, after he moved to Beijing and adopted a fluid, almost calligraphy-like style, using ink wash.
He specialized in vivid landscapes and portraits of nature, documenting begonias, dragonflies, grasshoppers, frogs, chickens, crabs and shrimp, lots of shrimp.
Academics say he was prolific and estimate he produced between 10,000 and 15,000 works in his lifetime. Of those, about 3,000 are in the collections of major museums and some are assumed to have been destroyed during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s or during the Cultural Revolution, when Red Guards looted and occupied his family’s home.
Auction records, though, show that more than 18,000 distinctive works by Qi Baishi have been offered for sale since 1993, an impossible number, if the expert estimates are right.
Concern over fake Qi Baishis is now a challenge for auction houses. China Guardian says it has an enviable record of spotting fakes, and most experts agree that its reputation stands above all others. However, in the spring of 2011, China Guardian marketed Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree as the classic masterpiece the painter had created decades earlier to honor the birthday of Chiang Kai-shek (蔣介石).
The work was put up for sale by Liu Yiqian (劉益謙), a former taxi driver turned wealthy financier, who has become one of China’s largest art collectors. He sold it as a set with a calligraphic couplet Qi Baishi wrote to accompany the painting, and the auction house estimated it could bring in as much as US$20 million.
On a cool evening in May, bidding on the work went back and forth for more than 30 minutes as a collector in the room jousted with someone calling in bids by telephone. When the hammer fell at a record US$65.4 million, the room burst into applause.