Nicolas Chow places a magnifying glass against a Ming Dynasty vase to inspect the potter’s 600-year-old workmanship.
Chow, the international head of Chinese ceramics and works of art at auction giant Sotheby’s, points out layers of uneven bubbles invisible to the naked eye along the early 15th century blue-and-white porcelain.
The distinctive markings are just one tell-tale sign that experts rely on to determine if a piece is a multimillion dollar original or a worthless fake.
“That happens in the firing process — they did not have an even temperature in [kilns] during the 15th century,” Chow said of the piece, which fetched nearly US$22 million at an auction in Hong Kong late last year, setting a world record price for Ming Dynasty porcelain.
“The feel of the glaze is also incredibly important. Just running your hands over it will give you the answer,” he said. “Potters in the old days would do lots and lots of these, one after the other. They breathed it, they lived it. It’s very difficult for fakers to recreate … But there is still a degree of fear in the market.”
The demand for Chinese antiquities has exploded, helping propel Hong Kong to third spot in the global auction market behind London and New York as collectors slap down eye-popping sums for a piece of the country’s history.
Helping drive the boom is a growing class of super-rich Chinese looking for opportunities to exploit their net worthwhile also “reclaiming” parts of Chinese history from Western collectors. Auction houses Sotheby’s and Christie’s together raised more than US$460 million from sales of Chinese antiquities and art works last year, but the market has also generated a slew of fakes from con-men hoping to make big bucks.
“There are many fakes on the market, and there are probably more now because the price of these antiquities have increased dramatically,” said Tang Hoi-chiu, chief curator of Hong Kong’s Museum of Art. “There are some very good copies out there.”
The problem was highlighted again last month when questions arose about the authenticity of a jade dressing table and stool from the Han Dynasty, which had fetched about US$35 million at a mainland Chinese auction.
Experts are now publicly questioning the piece since Chinese were believed to have sat on the floor, not stools or chairs, during the ancient period, which ran from about 206BC to 220AD, the South China Morning Post reported.
Facts and figures about the black market in antiquities are difficult to come by, although many fakes are produced in mainland China, said Rosemary Scott, international academic director to Christie’s Asian art departments.
Scott has seen fakes many times larger than they should be and other amateur mistakes that can make determining authenticity a 30-second operation.
“Some are absolutely dreadful and some are very good,” she said. “In one case, a person presented me with [a piece] that was taller than me when it’s only supposed to be a foot [30.48cm] tall.”
However, other items can take weeks or longer to determine if they’re genuine, demanding a rigorous checklist, she said.
Auction houses use various means, including carbon dating, to pinpoint a piece’s age, but that requires taking a value-denting sample and threatens to make an item less appealing to keen-eyed collectors.
“You have to decide if it’s worth it because [carbon dating] could make the piece less aesthetically pleasing or just plain disfiguring,” Scott said.