Chinese forgers, after fooling art collectors worldwide by faking their own country’s artifacts, are now trying to break into Japan’s hermetic but very lucrative market, a leading expert warned.
Netsuke — miniature sculptures made of ivory, boxwood or animal horn that Japanese men have traditionally worn to decorate their kimono belts — have become the latest target of counterfeit artists in Hong Kong and China.
Forged netsuke have not only invaded popular online trading sites like eBay but also appeared in some of the world’s most prestigious auction houses, said Robert Fleischel, an internationally known expert on netsuke.
“I remember an art catalog that had a photo of a fake netsuke on its cover,” said Fleischel, who has worked for four decades in Japan and owns a Tokyo gallery dedicated to the decorative objects.
“In a book on netsuke published in the United States in 2007, only two or three were authentic,” he said. “All the others were fakes. The collection of netsuke at the Museum of Orleans in France is practically made up of fakes.”
While Chinese forgers have proven skillful in reproducing netsuke in the form of animals or objects, they still lack the craftsmanship to properly recreate ones bearing Japanese faces, the netsuke connoisseur said.
“They can imitate the patina of a 19th or 20th century ivory netsuke, but not those that are dated older,” he said.
Fleischel distinguishes mediocre copies from high-quality fakes that are crafted by skilled artisans, notably ones based in Germany, who work with the aim of deceiving top-level clients.
“It is these fakes, pegged at high prices, that we find at auction sales,” Fleischel said.
The expert, who has authored a number of books on netsuke, said he takes care to avoid publishing three-dimensional photos of the objects to prevent forgers from easily crafting counterfeits.
“They order my catalogs from Hong Kong and China. One month later, the same netsuke are auctioned on eBay,” he said.
Popular Internet sites feature pages of purportedly “ancient” netsuke offered from China or Hong Kong at rock-bottom prices, when a bid for an authentic item starts at no less than several hundred dollars.
Other handicrafts, such as sword hilts known as tsuba, sought after by Japanese art lovers, have also been targeted by Chinese forgers.
Web site eBay is not dangerous ground for connoisseurs, Fleischel said, but it is for art novices, who risk building up a collection of fakes that may one day resurface in antiquaries or at auction sales.
Netsuke emerged more than 300 years ago, around the same time as sagemono — which means “carried objects” and include lacquered objects encrusted with precious metals — that are also worn at the waist.
Fleischel’s gallery is the only store in Japan that specializes in netsuke and sagemono. But the Frenchman said that the tradition of netsuke and sagemono is far from disappearing in Japan, where today cellphones are often decorated with various pendants and bangles, from jewely to modern cartoon figures.
“It’s the same idea,” Fleischel said. “The tradition endures.”