Determining authenticity is not an easy task.
Even I have been fooled on occasion. Quite often a fake is passed from hand
to hand unknowingly, often accompanied by the famous Certificate of
Authenticity. Don't be fooled by this document. There is no license
required for appraisal and many people offer appraisal services. Good
appraisers will have a reputation and their own credentials. I've seen many
appraisals and have to say that most are lacking both in detail and information
to back up their declaration.
About forty years ago I watched one such appraiser
thumb through a book to identify a mark, then copy this information
directly to a one-liner stating the authenticity. With his reputation, he
should have immediately recognized the mark and style and used some creativity
in his appraisal. An appraisal should go into as much detail as possible
to accompany any fine piece of art on it's journey. It should include the
history of the piece, images, comparisons, exact measurements, and tell
a story. Click here to see an example of a properly
done appraisal. This should be the minimum accepted,
should documented provenance or TL test results not be available.
Moving from the credentials to the piece itself
takes us to the next step. Of course if you find a piece while excavating
a tomb, you're 99.9% sure it's authentic, but there is still that
.1% chance that someone found the tomb earlier and placed it there
to fool you. There is only one sure method of dating, thermoluminescence,
but that is expensive. Not everyone can afford to spend $400 - $500
to authenticate each piece. I might also add that this is used mainly on
heavier pottery such as those from the T'ang and Sung periods, and not
recommended for the finer thin porcelain of the Ming and Qing dynasties.
Aside from the risk of breakage, drilling holes in a fine porcelain
(if not done properly) can affect the value. For those considering this route,
keep in mind that unless performed by either Oxford or Daybreak
Archaeometric, the results may not be accepted by the major auction houses.
Be also aware that not all types of clay used in the
potting contain sufficient amounts of the properties needed
to obtain a valid TL reading. Sufficient amounts of quartz,
and feldspar must be present. Click
view my notes on this subject.
Here are some suggestions for the serious collector wanting to learn.
Build a Library
Start collecting as many books as you can on Chinese
porcelain. Start your collection with Hobson2
and build from there. Familiarize yourself with
the different styles of each of the Ming and Qing emperors. Soon you will
be able to glance at a piece and immediately recognize, for example, the
difference between the Xuande and Wanli styles of the Ming dynasty. Collect
catalogues from the major auction houses like Sotheby's and
Christie's. They have quality photos
that will aid in the identification of a style or period. I've listed just
a few references below:
1 The Wanli Shipwreck and
its Ceramic Cargo - by Sten Sjostrand & Sharipah Lok Lok bt.
2 The Wares of the Ming Dynasty
- by R. L. Hobson
The Chinese Exhibition - Commemorative
from 1935-1936 - Faber and Faber
4 Chinese Blue and White
- by Ann Frank (good beginner's book)
5 Porcelain, Its Nature,
Art, & Manufacture - by William Burton (Batsford, London
last mentioned (1906 publication) is one of many that give
the translation of the earliest known first hand account
of Chinese porcelain manufacture. It was recently pointed
out to me that this (the translation) is only now available,
when in fact it's been available in several languages
for over two-hundred years. Much of my early research 30+ years
ago was based in part on my own interpretation of this translated
text. Briefly, it's two letters from a missionary Jesuit
priest, Father Pére Francois Xavier d'Entrecolles (1664-1741),
who was the first European to view first-hand Chinese porcelain
manufacture. He sent back two detailed letters (reports) on the
process. These letters, dated 1712 and 1722,
were translated into English, Italian, and German shortly
thereafter. There are many sites on the Internet that offer the translated
version. You can even view the original published letters in French
at Google Books. It's almost amusing to see so many sites now saying
"Here, available for the first time....". They are about 200 years
behind the times.
Visit Museums and
View as many pieces as you can. Soon you will
be able to immediately recognize the look of the authentic piece. If possible,
speak with the curator. They often have handouts available containing information
on the dynasties. Most libraries have a separate Arts section where you can
research a specific dynasty, an emperor, or even porcelain manufacture. Read
as much as you can.
Another good place to view quality items
is an Asian art show. One caution here though, keep in mind that all vendors
are there to sell their wares.
Unlike the well known syndicated 'Antiques Road
Show' which features professional appraisers from the major art houses, you
are instead dealing with a salesman who may (or may not) be the owner of
the wares on display. Just assuming someone of Chinese descent is an expert
on porcelain, is as much a mistake as someone of Chinese descent assuming
an Englishman is an expert on Royal Dalton. Having attended many such art
shows, I've seen a mix of the authentic and the 'not so authentic'.
Watch for Copies
Be aware that there are present day copies being
manufactured that are almost impossible to detect. They come complete with
flaws, discolorations, and imperfections. Only thermoluminescence testing
can detect the true age. Also be aware that copies were made within both
the Ming and Qing dynasties. These were not made to deceive,
but in reverence (honor) of an earlier style or period. For example, some
pieces from the later Ming reigns bare the earlier Xuande mark. The
same applies to the later Qing dynasty, with the most common copied marks
being that of the earlier Kangxi and Qianlong reigns. These pieces,
though not of the period, are still quite valuable and to be
differentiated from modern day copies which are of little value other than
Early trade with China could produce the materials,
but not the methods of the Chinese potter, some of which were highly guarded
secrets. Though these methods applied to every aspect of the production,
it was the actual firing process that was the hardest to duplicate.
The final product of the Chinese Imperial kiln
was the result of an exactly timed and controlled temperature and environment
which was dictated by the actual piece or group being fired. Additives such
as bamboo leaves, various woods and ferns, were also included in the firing
process for certain effects on the glaze. Products from other than Imperial
kilns (provincial kilns) could rarely match the quality of the Imperial kiln.
Because of this, during both the Ming and Qing
dynasties, Japan conducted raids on the China mainland, bringing back both
materials and captives to learn the tricks of the Chinese potter and artisan.
The result of this documented practice is evident in examining the property
of these earliest known pieces, which is the presence of classic
Chinese designs using native cobalt and porcelain originating from the Ma
T'sang mountains in China.
One still has to consider that a product created
in Japan, in a kiln built by a captive Chinese potter, using Chinese material
and the exact firing methods, is still a Chinese masterpiece.
Eventually the distinct Japanese style began to
emerge and become separate, and just as sought after in its own right.
Learn Chinese Calligraphy
An excellent book is Chinese Characters
- Their origin, etymology, history, classification, and signification. By
Dr. L. Wieger, S.J. This book, like so many earlier books,
is written using the Wade-Giles transliteration and not Pinyin. Since
Pinyin is now the Universally accepted transliteration, you
may want to search for a book that uses Pinyin. If you want
a brief introduction to these two
different Romanization methods, please visit my calligraphy section
where you can actually meet Pinyin Man.
Using any good book on calligraphy, you can
learn to read and write as much Chinese as is necessary to recognize all
the Ming and Qing emperors. I've spent about ten years studying Chinese
calligraphy and it's been a major help in my collecting. I discovered that
learning approximately 200 characters allowed me to identify 600 years of
Chinese art. It was then that I realized that many dealers pretend to be
experts when in fact they are not. Here are several incidents that happened
to me that you might enjoy.
One such dealer had a reputation as one of the
best in the country. I often test a dealer's knowledge. One day I handed
him a piece of porcelain. My not being of Chinese descent, mostly Irish,
Portuguese, English, and Dutch (kind of a mutt), made it unlikely I could
read and write Chinese. I asked him "What are the squigglies, are these
what they call chop marks?". He nonchalantly took the piece, pausing
long enough to glance quickly at it while talking to some customers. Unknowingly
holding it upside down, he quickly pointed to each of the characters and
read (to us all) "It simply says - From the Imperial House on
the Great Yellow River". I smiled, thanked him and left. It was a new piece
that actually read 'Zhong Guo Jingdezhen Nian Zhi' , which translates to
'Middle Country (China) Jingdezhen (province known for porcelain
manufacture) Period Made'. This is a common mark on modern pieces presently
being made in China.
Another dealer of reputation once said "It's
got the Double Ming Mark, it's from 1701". She was way off here. There is
no "Double Ming Mark" and the Ming dynasty ended in 1644. She was referring
to the cobalt blue empty double ring often seen on modern pieces.
There is however a cobalt blue empty double ring
on some genuine Kangxi pieces of the Qing dynasty, due to a proclamation
made by the young emperor which lasted only a year or so. In my opinion,
genuine pieces from this short period (1667 - 1669) are of greater value.
They provide a more exact date than the usual six-character mark, which only
says it falls somewhere within the sixty-year reign (1662 - 1722). It's just
a matter of personal preference. This empty double ring oftentimes contained
an image (such as a rabbit or Artemisia leaf) in substitution of the
emperor's mark. Kind of a work-around to the proclamation, so as not to leave
the piece totally unmarked.
One final note on calligraphy. It's easier to
read than write, but if you can write, you will immediately recognize characters
written by someone who has not been schooled in Chinese calligraphy. I've
found many pieces with mistakes. There is a rule to the stroke of the brush,
which is clearly noticeable. Perhaps in the near future I will dedicate a
section regarding this subject.
Like calligraphy, this also is a world of study
in itself. Personally, I prefer a piece with some minor flaws.
The cracks, chips, and wear better suggest its
true age, giving it character and life. My Jiajing dish
is a good example. The gild is almost completely worn away with age. The
lip shows centuries of wear. The biscuit worn smooth. Click here =>
for a good example of age
cracks. Cracking can be created on new pieces, but it's more uniform with
a controlled placement and size. Glaze cracking on a piece of five to six-hundred
years of age is not uniform and there will be a slight discoloration within
the cracks themselves, making them appear almost like thin translucent brown
and yellow lines.
Microscopic examination shows a variation in the
size of the fine bubbles in the porcelain between the white and blue cobalt
areas, specifically where the both meet. Here's an example =>
This is a trait of the
ancient wood burning kiln where temperatures were not as finely controlled
as in the present day modern kilns. Fakers of today can use the old kilns
and methods of the past to emulate this as well.
You will also encounter some common terms used
such as chicken skin, orange peel, massed lard, heaped and piled, palm eyes,
etc. Mostly these are used to describe the feel and appearance of the glaze
(or surface). Palm eyes, for instance, are those small dark holes where possibly
a foreign particle caused an imperfection in the glaze during the firing
process. Sometimes oxygen entering the kiln during the firing would cause
this effect. Though common, these imperfections are not necessarily signs
of authenticity. A good book (like
Hobson1) will go into detail on
each, and even point out which is most common to a certain reign. Though
good to be familiar with (as earlier mentioned), they also are
not necessarily signs of authenticity.
There also seems to be an increase
of classic blue and white 'Ming' chargers and plates with the orange tinted
unglazed foot-ring usually known to early Ming and Yuan wares. Not wanting
to discount those that are authentic, just be aware that there is a
chemical oxidizing agent named Potassium Permanganate (KMno4) that can
be used to create this look. It is water soluble and available with any shade
of iron oxide red or yellow.
One last thing to mention. The 'classic' books
on Chinese porcelain have been around for many years, providing the collector
with a wealth of knowledge in determining authenticity. This same knowledge
has been available to the counterfeiters, whose tools and methods have only
improved with time.
Start that library. Hit those museums.
Internet Auctions - Some
This avenue has its ups and downs. You really
have to be careful out there. I've seen some treasures go for pennies, but
also some expensive rip-offs. Everyone is familiar with the old saying 'Buyer
Beware', but because of the nature (and tactics) of the online auction, 'Seller
As mentioned earlier, fakes are often passed from
hand to hand unintentionally. Anyone can make an error in judgment. I
believe most people are honest. But there is now an alarming increase
of intentional passing of fakes on the Internet auctions. Some quite obvious,
and some not so obvious.
Speaking of honesty, here are some of the tactics
of the 'less than honest' to watch out for in the world of online auctions.
I know it happens, because I've seen it.
Let's say a seller lists an item that has all
the properties of authenticity, but the image is not clear and no macro images
are offered. Before you bid on this item, be aware not only of the refund
policy, but study the description closely. A seller saying "I don't know
what it is." and only suggests it might be Ming or Qing (or old) does
not have to refund your money if it isn't. I've seen them use the wording
"Ming Dynasty - Xuande style" in which case the simple use of the word "style"
clears them from having to refund your money. Some don't offer a refund policy
at all. I'd steer clear of these unless you know the seller's reputation,
or are willing to gamble.
Another caution is the
Private Auction. The bidder's identity is hidden (protected),
but it's really protecting the seller, allowing him to receive
bids from unsuspecting bidders that can't be warned in advance. I've
seen many an auction where the bidder is unaware the piece they are bidding
on is fake. There is no way to reach the bidder, and it's against the auction
policy to interfere with an auction. Know your stuff if you participate in
a private auction.
I recently had a lady contact me asking for help
on a small bowl that she paid 12 dollars for at a garage sale. I enjoy helping
when I have the time, so I downloaded the image.
She had a fine bowl of Imperial quality that,
if authentic, would fetch 8 to 10 thousand dollars, and easily several hundred
if the mark was spurious (not of the period). I told her to seek a second
opinion from a reputable auction house. She did just that, and they confirmed
As previously stated, if you participate in online
auctions, be very careful as both a buyer and a seller.
Though forums can offer excellent information
to collectors from both novice to advanced, there are some things
to be cautious of. Most moderators know their stuff, but
there always seems to be one (or more) self proclaimed
'expert' who will try to establish himself as having
an advanced knowledge when often times they do not. They
will often disrupt the entire forum, making the job of
the assigned moderators extremely difficult. I rarely
participate in forum discussions. Here is an example of one
such incident where I ended up dueling with an 'expert'.
Someone posted an image looking
for the translation of a mark on a blue and white bowl. After over 100
views with no responses, I posted the answer for them since it was a very
rare mark used during the 18th and 19th centuries. As soon as I did, another
person posted a smart remark that offered no information but instead
hinted that he knew what the mark was and for some reason kept quiet. I was
wondering who would do this, and why. I also posted further down in the same
forum an answer to another question that had gone a long time with no answers.
It was for someone who wanted to know if a certain bowl could possibly
be from the Yuan dynasty. I told them it had the properties and it would
be wise to take it to a museum or a reputable dealer for a first hand inspection.
The person thanked me for the encouragement. Almost immediately after that
there was a post from the same one who left the smart remark earlier saying
the piece was a 20th century fake and [Quote]: "
The shape and form are all wrong." meaning it
didn't exist during the Yuan dynasty. After several more posts to the
thread between the 'expert' and the person asking for help, I decided
to put an end to it all by providing images of the exact shape and form from
a 14th century bowl in the Topkapi Museum, Istanbul Turkey. There were other
bowls as well of almost the exact size and shape also within the collection.
This apparently enraged the self proclaimed expert who
did not reply directly after having been proven dead wrong. He
instead started a new post saying that very detailed information
should never be given on a forum as it was only providing information
to the fakers. Here is the text he started with: [Quote]
(July 16th, 2005)
myself am an expert in a particular area of Chinese ceramics and I also have
one of the largest libraries on the subject within the United Kingdom...for
reasons that will become obvious I will say no
If this was indeed true, then he must have
recognized it. He was therefore purposely giving misleading
information. Not just to the original user who asked for help, but
to all members of the forum. Life is so much easier
when you say your not and expert. We are all learning together, no
one knows it all. I guess what I'm trying to say is don't believe
everything you see on online forums. It's my belief that
the self proclaimed 'expert' just didn't know.
My Chinese friends have been invaluable to me.
I grew up in Hawaii and had many such friends. I've had one mentor who came
from a line of potters dating back to the Ming dynasty. Another mentor escaped
China during the revolution.
Over forty years ago I spent a year on some islands
just off the east China coast. During this time I headed up several expeditions
and viewed tombs never before seen by a Westerner. Some had not been
entered in over five hundred years. One such expedition almost ended
up an international incident. I continued to explore (alone) for several
years following this incident and have never revealed the locations
I've discovered. I considered these remote jungle spots as sacred and just
enjoyed the beauty and solitude without breaking the earth, removing a single
item, or disturbing a single leaf. Unless you enjoy snakes, traps, and arrows
whizzing past you, I suggest hitting the garage sales and antique stores.
There are many treasures to be found both on and off-line.
That about covers it. I hope the content I've
provided helps. Again, it's my own opinion from information gathered over
the past forty years. It's also an accumulation of knowledge passed on from
many fine Chinese friends and mentors. Special thanks to Paul
T'sai, Richard Li, Ching Wa, Alan Wong, and especially Lawrence
Wu for their years of friendship and patience.