When the hammer came down at an evening auction during China Guardian’s spring sale in May 2011, Eagle Standing on a Pine Tree, a 1946 ink painting by Qi Baishi (齊白石), one of China’s 20th-century masters, had drawn a startling price: US$65.4 million. No Chinese painting had ever fetched so much at auction, and by the end of the year, the sale appeared to have global implications, helping China surpass the US as the world’s biggest art and auction market. However, two years after the auction, Qi’s masterpiece is still languishing in a warehouse in Beijing. The winning bidder has refused to pay for the piece since doubts were raised about its authenticity.
Buyers also failed to pay for the second-most expensive work reported to have sold in that session, and they similarly balked at paying for the third, fourth, sixth and ninth-most expensive works — a striking pattern of default that has been repeated at auction houses across the country.
“The market is in a very dubious stage,” said Alexander Zacke, an expert in Asian art who runs Auctionata, an international online auction house. “No one will take results in mainland China very seriously.”
Indeed, even as the art world marvels at China’s booming market, a six-month review by the New York Times found that many of the sales — transactions reported to have produced as much as a third of the country’s auction revenue in recent years — did not actually take place.
Just as problematic, the market is flooded with forgeries, often mass produced, and has become a breeding ground for corruption, as business executives curry favor with officials by bribing them with art.
Fraud is certainly no stranger to the international art world, but experts warn that the market in China is particularly vulnerable because, like many industries in the country, it has expanded too fast for regulators to keep pace.
Indeed, few areas of business offer as revealing a view of the socialist society’s lurch toward capitalism as the art market. Like many luxury businesses in China, the explosion of buyers for art has been fueled by the pent-up consumerism of the newly rich. The demand is so great that last year, in a country that barely had an art market two decades ago, reported auction revenues were up 900 percent over 2003 — to US$8.9 billion. (The US auction market for last year was US$8.1 billion.)
While the luxury-buying habits in China often mimic those in the West, the demand for art reflects uniquely Chinese tastes. While the rest of the world bids up Pollocks and Rothkos, Chinese buyers typically pursue traditional Chinese pieces, some by 15th-century masters, and others by modern artists, like Chang Dai-chien (張大千), one of many who have chosen to work in that old style. Even today, the name of Chang, a 20th-century artist known for his landscapes, hardly registers internationally outside collecting circles, though in recent years he has joined Picasso and Warhol as one of the best-selling artists in the world.
This very reverence for the cultural past is now contributing greatly to the surge in forgeries. Artists are trained to imitate the old Chinese masters, and they routinely produce high-quality copies of paintings and other works, such as ceramics and jade artifacts. That tradition has intersected with the newly lucrative art market, in which reproductions that so many have the skills to create are often offered as the real thing. It would be hard to create a more fertile environment for the proliferation of fakes.
“This is the challenge right now,” said Wang Yannan (王雁南), president and director of China Guardian, the nation’s second-biggest auction house. “In the mind of every Chinese, the first question is whether it’s fake.”
For years, much of the forgery went unnoticed as works passed from buyer to buyer, their prices spiraling up, but increasingly, high-profile scandals are exposing the extent of the fakery and sowing doubts about the larger market. In one case three years ago, an oil painting attributed to the 20th-century artist Xu Beihong (徐悲鴻), which sold at auction for more than US$10 million, turned out to have been produced 30 years after the artist’s death by a student during a class exercise at one of China’s leading art academies.
Even more embarrassing was the government’s decision in July to close a private museum in Hebei because of suspicions that nearly everything in it — all 40,000 artifacts, including a Tang Dynasty porcelain vase — were fake.
“There’s always been forgers on the market, but it’s a matter of proportion,” said Robert Mowry, a former curator of Asian art at Harvard who is now a consultant for Christie’s.
Concern about fraud and a cooling economy seem to have tempered enthusiasm in the Chinese art market. After peaking in 2011, reported revenues dropped off 24 percent last year, according to Arts Economics, a research company that studies the international market. This year is expected to be modestly better than last year.
The Chinese auction industry and the government have taken notice and say they are looking to clean up the abuses and stem further damage to consumer confidence, especially since the art market is actually perceived by many as one of the safer places to invest.
“A majority of Chinese people do not trust the Chinese stock market,” said Melanie Ouyang Lum, a consultant on Chinese art. “The housing boom has slowed tremendously. A lot of people are looking to art for investment.”
RISING PRICE OF CULTURE
China has also identified culture as a core area for economic growth and a vibrant art market as a useful tool of soft power, promoting a view of Chinese society as a center of aesthetics and beauty and deflecting the international focus from political and human rights issues. The Chinese are handicapped in cleaning up the art market, though, by a weakness in their laws, which absolve auction houses of any responsibility if a work turns out to be fake.
The forgery problem helps account for the soaring number of payment defaults. In the past three years, a study of sales at Chinese auction houses by the China Association of Auctioneers found that about half the sales of artworks worth more than US$1.5 million — a major portion of the market — were not completed because the buyer failed to pay what was owed. (For major auction houses in the US, the default rate for works of the same value is negligible, several experts said.)
“It has something to do with the general environment in China,” association chairwoman Zhang Yanhua (張延華) said. “As you know, China is still trying to build the rule of law in this country.”
The interest in addressing the market’s weaknesses may have played a role in China’s recent decision to loosen longstanding rules that restrict Western auction houses from access to the Chinese market.
Now Sotheby’s has a joint venture with a state-run company, and Christie’s won a license this year to become the first international auction house to operate independently in China — developments that may serve to foster competition and higher standards in the market.
Zhang said bringing in the Western auction houses was like putting a crocodile in a pond.
“It makes the fish swim faster,” she said.
Less than a decade ago, the Chinese art market was still quite sleepy, a legacy of the Cultural Revolution, when luxury items were viewed as bourgeois and the Red Guards raided homes, seizing and destroying art. Ma Weidu (馬未都), a major collector based in Beijing, recounted how easy it still was in the 1980s to secure small artifacts. People gave them to him for nothing, he said, or traded them for a few cigarettes. Occasionally, he would pay a small fee.
“They’d say: ‘Take it all. All I want is a washing machine,’” he said.
The auctioning of art remained rare until the early 1990s, when the government lifted restrictions on the sale of cultural relics. Still, the art market did not begin to take off until 2004, fueled by rising incomes.
Now there are more than 350 Chinese auction houses that deal in fine arts. The two largest — Poly International Auction and China Guardian — are billion-dollar enterprises with offices in several cities, including Tokyo and New York, and close ties to the nation’s ruling elite.
However, as the market has grown, so has its dark underbelly. Price manipulation is rampant, analysts say, as collectors and investors, perhaps an art investment fund with large holdings in a particular artist, bid up a work to boost the value of their entire inventory.
Sometimes, experts say, auction houses themselves throw in fake bids.
The Chinese have a name for the price-boosting process. They call it “stir frying.”
While some collectors care deeply about their art, even exhibiting it in their own elaborate private museums, many buyers are primarily investors looking to flip a work for profit, experts say. Objects are sold and resold. One painting by Qi, Fish and Shrimp, sold four times at auction in the 10 years ending in December last year, the price climbing to US$794,000 from US$30,000 in 2002, before trailing off last year to US$552,000.
Resale opportunities are a priority for many buyers. At an auction in Beijing last month, four men from Guangzhou bought several paintings worth tens of thousands of dollars.
“Most people you see here, we don’t have a real job, we are traders,” said one of the men, in a white bomber jacket. “We buy them and resell them to educated, wealthy people.”
Analysts say that flipping artwork contributes to the market’s nonpayment problem. Before an auction, a buyer might find a collector interested in a piece and bid successfully for it, but refuse to pay if the deal with the collector falls through.
And then there are the payment problems that arise because China’s art market is, economically speaking, so young, and its rich are so recently minted.
“There is still a big difference between East and West in understanding whether raising a paddle at an auction is actually a binding contract or not,” said Philip Tinari, director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. “Some young starlet buys a bunch of paintings at an auction, walks out and says: ‘Nos. 13, 11, 7, 6, 5 ... those are the ones I don’t want.’ It happens all the time.”
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).
“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.
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.
The euphoria did not last long, though. An art critic, Mou Jianping (牟建平), soon suggested that the work might be fake, and the bidder decided not to pay. Two years later, the buyer has effectively defaulted on the item.
Liu declined to comment on the failed sale.
However, in an interview last month, China Guardian director and vice president Kou Qin (寇勤) described the nonpayment problem in the market as “a very bad phenomenon,” but one that will be fought. His company reduced its nonpayment rate for the most expensive items to 17 percent last year.
“Lack of honor,” he said. “It is a problem faced by the whole of society.”
Additional reporting by Jo Craven McGinty