Ten rules on "How to deal with fakes"

Would you like to guess how old this Famille Rose border is?

A few years ago I went to the city of Jingdezhen in China, the "porcelain capital" of the world and the place where most of what we call "Chinese porcelain" has been produced for the last one thousand years.

We spent two weeks there as guests of the Archaeological Institution and got to see just about anything we cared to ask about. And I asked about a lot.

One of the things we saw in Jingdezhen was that they actually had a special factory that made antique porcelain replicas. The explanation was that the porcelain history was so important to the Chinese and the country so large, that they had to make replicas since the original pieces were so few!

These factories were run like the ancient potters ran them. They had access to all resources they needed, including the possibility of firing their pieces in wood fired kilns. But this we can handle because these guys make replicas - not fakes. At least during office hours.

Chinese Pottery and Porcelain fakes are made everywhere though, not only in China. There are several factories for fakes inside and outside China. Some important ones are in Hong Kong. Lots of fakes are coming from Japan, Singapore and other places in South East Asia. Luckily these factories miss out on a lot of details. Some does not even bother too much about originals and make old looking things that have never existed before. There are Tang dancers made out of left over horse parts, clay figures carved out of Han clay bricks that can take a TL-test and Famille rose plates that are so good no antique ones could compare.

A couple of years ago some early Ming fakes turned up. They were really good except from the paste. As soon as one happened to break it was obvious to all what they were, but who can go around and crack open early Mings to see what they look like on the inside?

Another problem is the "semi-antique fakes" who are some fifty years and older. They have by now gotten some authentic looking sense of having been around for a while. I can't put my finger on it, but it's there.

A serious problem of an entirely other dimension is to sort out antique replicas, some of which might be very early, but just not as early as they appear. The Chinese have made replicas, copies and imitations of their own pieces from day one. Some even on Imperial command. Even the wet porcelain clay bricks were sometimes copied BEFORE being made into porcelain. Immediately, when one provincial Song or Ming dynasty kiln came up with a popular design, everybody wanted a piece of the business and made copies. Entire areas also seems to have been copying each other when the design was popular - or at times a huge order might have been distributed to several kilns. Thus the difference between two pieces might depend on this, rather than the development of a style within one specific kiln.

I have myself visited several Song and Ming kiln site and studied the shards on the ground, and there is sometimes no way to see a difference between two different kiln sites. As I see it, we could easily miss by hundreds of years and probably even mistake a Southern ware for a Northern. On top of this "everything" seems to have been made everywhere, at least at some time.

A well known problem area is Chinese porcelain made for the Japanese export market during the Ming dynasty Tianqi (1621-27) period and well into the Qing dynasty Kangxi (1662-1722) period.

They were originally made in small series and in a rush. They are often sloppily but attractively painted, often warped and uneven. They should have some grit adhering to the foot rim. The glaze are likely to flake off at the rim and they should have radiating "chatter" marks within the foot rim; all signs of very summary production. The problem is that the Japanese loved them so much that they started to make them themselves. They still are and they are very good at it. It is mostly the paste and some "flavors" in the combinations of elements in the decoration that gives these wares away.

If you want to spot a Chinese Ming piece the first thing to look for is a reddish brown edge where the glaze stops short of the unglazed paste at the foot rim. If there is NO trace of any reddish brown anywhere you can assume that the piece is Japanese and probably later than it looks. If you let light reflect on the glazed surface and watch how even it is - and the body is perfectly flat with a perfect and shiny glaze - you can assume that the piece is not only Japanese, it's also modern. Already by this you will make a lot of people irritated. But ask, look and learn. And wait a while before you buy anything if you don't feel perfectly comfortably. Modern Japanese pieces are good, but the price should be different.

Around the 1920's there were for several reasons a great revival in the production of imperial and export style "Famille rose" pieces. (See the Eggshell FAQ page) These are also really hard to spot. We have some clues though thanks to the fact that we were at the receiving end of the 18th century East India Company trade and have literally millions of pieces to compare with.

To sum this up, should we give up? No, but perhaps lower our expectations. Most pieces or at least every second piece is ok. The fashion, or demand at a given time decided what was produced. "Collectors" are a very small market compared to the main output of an ancient commercial village kiln site.

Here are anyway a couple of "rules" I try to live after. I might be sticking my head out now more than usual, but here goes:

Rule 1. If you want to play it safe - Buy from a reputable dealer or any mayor auction house.

There are several all over the world who have a reputation to protect. You will have a long way to go before you know more than they do. They will offer you a full refund or a trade in if you are not happy with what you bought. The reason is simple. The price of genuine pieces most often goes up all the time. If they get a genuine piece back, they can sell it again at a higher price than you paid. Even if you just believe you bought a fake from them you will be pissed and tell everybody, and that's not good for their business.

Rule 2. Shop around with caution.

If you like to go bargain hunting at e-bay, at markets and in small shops it's a different thing. The prices are most often lower. They will have kiln wasters, repaired pieces, fakes, and once in a while - a genuine one even they don't know about. Now you must ask yourself the question, do you feel lucky? Do you trust the dealer who sells it? Would he cheat you if he could? Does he have fakes you don't buy because you know they are fakes? In that case he will most likely have more fakes you don't know are fakes. In this case you might feel you would be better off dealing with somebody else.

Rule 3. Look for mistakes.

Copyists seldom have access to originals so they work from pictures. A problem with this is that they doesn't know what the backside or foot should look like or feel. He does not know how the marking should look, how much the piece should weigh or how thick the walls should be. Maybe he can't replicate the ancient way of making whatever he is copying. He might be mixing two pictures and therefore adding a border that does not belong to the period, to a decoration. He therefore often misses out on several of these factors.

Rule 4. Be careful if there are too many pieces on the market of something terribly rare.

This happened to a very nice little blue and white Qianlong mark and period stem cup with perfect shape, clay and glaze but with the tiniest touch of too good decoration. It can nowadays be bought by the attentive collector at Chinese antiques markets for 5 US$ or less. The less attentive collector might get to pay considerably more.

Rule 5. Try to spot groups.

The "fake factory" might be so happy about their own pieces, that after a while they doesn't really care about the originals. The copies have got a life of their own. They might even form a subgroup of "genuine" pieces that might survive for a long time on the market. Once you spot one of these groups of "fakeware" you can sort out whole shoals of pieces that will never bother you again. But think twice though. An early Japanese "copy" might be worth more than the Chinese "original". A modern, genuine Imperial Hongxian (Yuan Shikai) piece from 1915-16, might be worth 10 000 $ or more and could be found anywhere...

Rule 6. Handle pieces.

Handling pieces is the key to everything. If you handle enough pieces, you will "know" when something is wrong. A farmer does not have to bite in it, to know if he is picking a potato or a stone out of the soil. He just "know".

Rule 7. Visit museums and buy books.

There just isn't any easy way to knowing exactly what you are holding in your hand. Books are good; museum exhibition catalogs are super. They are often sold at a discount after the exhibition and contain the latest information on any given subject the exhibition was about. I would seriously advise you to spend on books at least 10 percent of what you intend to spend on porcelain. Never mind the language. The pictures tells ninety percent of the story anyway.

Rule 8. Do not pay too much attention to "experts".

A lot of museum curators in Europe and Asia are really good, but they have a limited amount of time to spend on you and me. A real "expert" should have been present at the actual excavation of that kiln site in China. Then he or she knows lots about that, but not necessarily much about anything else. It is quite flattering to be considered an "expert" so it is tempting for anybody asked, to try to come up with a guess. For your own sake, at least put in the word "why" as your next question to the "expert".

Rule 9. Try to sell a piece once in a while.

It was J. P. Barnum who said "a fool and his money are soon separated". That still holds true. You might need to make a fast reality check once in a while by trying to sell one of your treasured "antiques". Then if not before you are likely to hear all the good questions you should have asked.

Rule 10. Make mistakes.

It's part of the learning and it's part of the fun.

Oh, yes - the Famille Rose border. It's absolutely brand new, on a Chinese Export style plate.

Jan-Erik Nilsson

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