BEIJING – Strolling through Beijing's Panjiayuan Market, it's easy to imagine you've entered an antique treasure trove. Hawkers here sell blue and white porcelain, jade trinkets and Cultural Revolution-era memorabilia. If the prices seem too good to be true, that’s because they are. In the past, it was possible to pick up some rare finds at Panjiayuan; today almost all the "antiques" on sale were actually made just a few years, months, or weeks ago.
Fake Chinese antiques aren't only limited to Beijing's dirt markets; they have also appeared at auction houses and in museum collections worldwide. As the incomes of China's wealthy and middle classes rise, a mixture of national pride and get-rich-quick dreams have led to a surge in demand for antiques – and a boom in forgeries to meet that demand. In fact, the fake art market in China is so large that, according to Artron, a Chinese art research company, some 250,000 people are believed to be working in the industry.
While many are content to swindle first-time buyers with cheap knock-offs, at the high end of the market, highly organized professionals have developed complex networks of sellers and craftsmen who have honed their copying skills to the level where they can fool even the experts.
"I have a certain admiration for those making perfect copies. It's not something that can be embarked on without spending a lot of money and effort," says Lark Mason, a Chinese antiques expert who runs his own auction house and appears regularly on Antiques Roadshow. "You have to search out the right materials and have the skill set and tools to recreate the exact process of how the object was originally made."
Mason, who specializes in Chinese furniture, explains the lengths master forgers must go to in order to copy antique chairs: "It's extremely difficult to replicate objects made in the 17th century using modern timber. They need to fell old growth trees of a certain dimension and take the moisture out the traditional way, instead of drying the wood in a commercial kiln. They must find carvers and joiners with the same skill level as imperial craftsmen. Then, they need to replicate the wear that comes with people sitting down with different amounts of force over a long period of time and the effects of exposure to light over several hundred years."
Creating quality fakes requires big investment but there are big profits to be made. Ningyi Zhang is a dealer who specializes in antique European clocks, a market which he says is devoid of fakes because it would cost more to fake these clocks than to buy them today." By comparison, with Chinese porcelain, someone with a good fake can make 15 times their investment," he explains.
Today over $14 billion is spent every year on art and antiques in China – that accounts for around a quarter of the market worldwide. The most prized Chinese antiques sell for tens of millions of dollars in China's domestic auctions.
"The fakes being made in China today are in response to the strength of the Chinese economy," says Mason. "There were extraordinary numbers of fake Italian renaissance bronzes produced from the 17th to the 20th century, because at that time the collecting market and economic power was centered in Europe and the U.S."
A growing number of Chinese people have the money to buy antiques, and like Westerners before them, they are, says Mason, "from a cultural perspective, from a aesthetic perspective but also from nationalistic pride" choosing to purchase antiquities from their own heritage.
Some are also buying antiques as an investment, explains Lei Ming, an appraiser who works for several Chinese auction houses. "From the end of the 1990s, antique programs made people realize these items were worth a lot of money. The public started thinking of buying antiques as a way to get rich. The turning point was the record-breaking sale [for $28 million] of a Yuan dynasty blue and white jar at Christie's in London in 2005. People thought they could become millionaires overnight and fakes have exploded since then."
As the market for antiques grows, the techniques used by the fakers are growing increasingly sophisticated. Where once they would simply fume scrolls with tea, today they are raising bugs and mice for the purpose of adding bite marks to pieces. Instead of relying on a quick dirt rub for faked pottery, they are digging several feet underground to find clay with a similar chemical make-up to the clay used in the time period when the original object was made. Reproduced ceramics are buried for months, even years, to give them the same appearance and smell as artifacts found in ancient tombs, while chemical baths are used to age bronzes.
Shapes are replicated near perfectly with the help of 3D scanning technologies. Intricate designs and seals (red marks made with printing stamps which appraisers have traditionally placed great importance on as a way to authenticate objects) can be copied by lasers with great precision.
But it's not just the fakers who are using technology. The authenticators are also harnessing high-tech tools in their fight against fakes. Some use radiocarbon, thermoluminescence and other techniques to accurately date the antiques. Others concentrate on identifying signs of artificial aging. Guan Haisen (pictured top), an appraiser who works at Beijing Antique City, imports the Ocean Optics LIBS system from the U.S., so he can use the portable spectrometer to test for chemicals used to simulate aging.
However, these technologies are not infallible guarantees. Forgers have been known to take bases from less valuable but genuinely old porcelain and reproduce better quality vases around it. Since most porcelain dating tests sample from the unglazed bottom, this method is used to dupe the testers.
"Nowadays, a lot of people are repairing valuable broken porcelain with a resin that's almost impossible to detect at first. It makes it look like it was never damaged and a pristine piece is worth a lot more than a piece with even a hairline crack on it. It's only several months or years later when the resin begins to change color that you can detect it – but by then it's too late, the buyer has already bought it," says Zhang.
Enterprising, if dishonest, businessmen will continue to produce fakes as long as there is a market for them. But there are signs already that the Chinese public is beginning to grow wary. Classes teaching students how to spot forgeries have popped up all over the country and while records continue to be set at auction, this year has also seen many lots gone unsold or buyers refusing to pay up because on closer examination they believe the item is a fake. "It takes time," says Mason, "but eventually the places that are abusing public trust are going to suffer the consequences."