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Fakes of archaic Chinese jades are flooding the market

A dealer sounds the alarm

Today there is increasing concern that many of the archaic jades in the art market may not be genuine. Dealers and museums are seeing worrying numbers of excellent fakes, and even respected experts have been taken in.

The fakes are being produced in China: Beijing, Shanghai, sites in Jiangnan such as Suzhou, Benghu (Anhui Province) down to Hunan and in the north Shenyang.

So well organised is the trade that buyers are visiting these production sites and shipping their purchases back to Hong Kong, or commissioning jades they particularly desire, even taking genuine old examples to be copied. Archaic jades, which were produced over a long period, from around 6000 BC to 220 AD (see chronological table) were copied widely in China, particularly during the Song (960-1279) and Ming dynasties (1363-1644) out of respect for the past, with no intent to defraud. These copies are called “archaistic” jades, and should not be confused with modern fakes.

The archaic jades that inspired the later copies did not come with any particular credentials or geographical information, as there were few controlled archaeological digs before the 20th century. But today, well documented and illustrated digs are providing forgers with their inspiration and models. Copies of archaic jades from the Hongshan and Liangzhu cultures, produced by jade workers who also have handled the originals are flooding the art market, sometimes in their original form, in other cases having been deliberately distressed to simulate age and burial. Jades from the tombs of Fu hao and the King of Nanyue are also providing fodder for the copiers. Avid museum goers, the fakers study good examples, or use books, subtly altering the shapes and design elements to create their own related inventions.

So how can you tell the true from the false? As jade is a stone, and there is no known test for dating it, one is thrown back on experience, eye and touch, in particularly knowledge of the genuine article. Because the faker often works from books or museums and does not see the back of a piece, these can be a give-away; so study of both sides of genuine pieces is essential.

The jade workers and fakers of today lack the subtle touch of their ancient ancestor, sometimes exaggerating decorative elements. The aging and distressing methods frequently produce a texture and colour that is unconvincing to those who have handled the real thing.

Special attention should be paid to the work markings, surface textures and colour intrusions. A magnifying glass will reveal a crude finish, and a rough surface polish is often to be seen in narrow angles and recesses as well as on other hidden surfaces. Great time and effort was expended on genuine pieces to gain the desired perfection. Genuine old jades have a surface that has undergone oxidisation for thousands of years and they have a look that is special to them. The scratches are natural, not concentric and contrived; the abrasions are of different sizes and directions, all this accumulated over centuries of wear. It is also well to bear in mind the Chinese so revered and treasured jade that it was considered appropriate to use any damaged pieces and rework them. So a curling pendant can be re-carved from a section of a damaged disc.

Some fakes have been made from bits of old jade, natural boulders and pebbles, all of which have undergone wear, but with observation the flaws of the old can be distinguished from modern workers’ new carving. As for the use of staining and colour intrusion, the old staining emanates from a natural process when the jade is buried. The viewer needs to become experienced in detecting the differences between chemical or physical colour changes.

Finally, the sheer quantity of good and even important examples which have appeared on the market is an alarm bell in itself. Considering the value placed on archaic jades in the East, we must ask ourselves why such a generous amount of this highly prized material has reached the West.

Pedigree and history is important, but even great names such as Eumorfopoulos can be associated with fakes. Often well-informed and knowledgeable collectors bought, acquired and swapped fakes for the obvious reasons of mutual study and knowledge. They are no longer alive to inform us which were made to deceive, but I have found my instincts and eye useful in this area, and I did have the good fortune to meet and talk to many when I was beginning my career in Asian art.

In the 17th century, the poet Shao Chang Heng said this of Suzhou, which during the Ming and Qing dynasties was a centre for the manufacture of forgeries:

“Be wary of the Qin and Han archaic scripts. Patination can be made by chemicals; How pleasing are the colours in rich red and green; Ceramic wares of Chai Ru, guan, ge and Ding; Their prices are comparable to fine jade pieces..... How many authentic antiques can there be? No wonder the market is filled with forgeries.”

Roger Keverne is a London-based dealer specialising in Chinese works of art

Periods which have been

particularly copied by the fakers

Hongshan c 3500 - c 2500 BC

Central Yangshao c5000 - c 3000BC

Gansu Yangshao c3000 - c 1500 BC

Dawenkou c 4500 - c 2500 BC

Longshan c 2500 - c 1700 BC

Hemudu c 5000 - c 4500 BC

Liangzhu c 3000 - c 2000 BC

Erilou c 2000 - c 1600 BC

Shang dynasty c1600 - c 1050 BC

Western Zhou c1050 - 771 BC

Eastern Zhou 770 - 221 BC Han 206 BC - 220 AD

Further reading Roger Keverne (Ed.), Jade, (Anness Publishing, London) 1991; Jessica Rawson, Chinese Jade from the Neolithic to the Qing, (British Museum Press London) 1995; James Watt, Chinese Jades from the Collection of the Seattle Art Museum, (Seattle Art Museum) 1989; Peter Lam (Ed), Jades from the Tomb of the King of Nanyue.