Fair or Fake

Fair or Fake?

Fake Art in China is prospering. Whether it is ceramics, clay, stone, or other fake art goods, the inability to distinguish between what is fake and what is real will cause anyone to feel dazzled. Charlotte Wilson provides personal advice on how to be careful

Fake Art! Oh my goodness, where to begin?

Coming out of the Beijing subway past the movie offerings (5RMB)? Passing rows of vendors with their wooden bracelets, silver (?) earrings, jade (?) pendants or “ivory” (no question mark there) figurines? Going through the flea market?

No, I’m actually going to begin this post in Xi’an, Shanxi province. Xi’an is where I started thinking about the issue of fake art, and, after all, what better place to look at fake art other than both the capital of the imitation clay-figurine industry and the home of dazzling world masterpieces in ceramics, stone and pigment.

So there I was, headed to the Shanxi History Museum and unable to complain my way out of the first stop, a visit to a replica-warrior-cum-carpet factory. Furious and bored, I wandered. Behind a pile of carpets, I spotted a lovely little “antique”, a wooden painted chest which I was told was new and could be ordered in bulk. I inspected it for ten minutes and came away shaken. Had I not known, I would have been fooled. On the train back to Beijing, I made up my mind that I would never again buy anything in China based on my own assessment of whether it was genuine.


So, when you are buying Chinese art, that’s easy, right? Either you refuse to buy without assurance of authenticity (and pay the price for the money-back-guarantee) or assume it is fake art, proceed accordingly, and be pleasantly surprised to discover that it is genuine after all.

Watch: The Prosperous Industry of Fake Art


But on examination this all turns out to be a bit like the Xi’an chest: not quite so obvious. First of all, what is fake art: An imitation? A counterfeit? A copy? must there be intent to deceive? Or intent to acknowledge artistry? A cheap Terracotta Warrior figurine in a boxed set of twelve certainly is not a fake. It’s a souvenir. What about a fine-quality full-sized set (shipping included in the price) from the carpet factory? That’s a copy, right? What about the same full-sized set tagged with the story that it is part of the Terracotta Army which a local farmer unearthed last week?

Different Types of Fake Art

With so many differences among the fakes, I decided to lunge for the dictionary in hopes that Chinese characters may help explain:

仿造品 – fǎngzàopǐn: A copy that is modeled on something else, or a pastiche. Think “Gucci” handbag at a street market or think Picasso-like painting for
1000 RMB. Xi’an chest? Boxed figurines?

临摹 - línmó: To copy a model of calligraphy or painting. Think artist in Louvre copying Mona Lisa — permitted but not on the same-sized canvas. Honoring Leonardo’s mastery while honing the copyist’s skill — and maybe earning a few francs on the side. This manner of copying is a time-honored way for Chinese artists to: a) improve their skills and b) show respect to their predecessors.

赝品 - yànpǐn: Art forgery, which is where the rubber meets the road, as far as art and antiques collectors are concerned. I have come to the conclusion that an item is a forgery or a fake under the following conditions: a) if the producer makes it with the express purpose of passing it off as something which it is not or b) if at any point in its subsequent life it is offered–knowingly or unknowingly–as something which it is not. e.g. the warrior that comes with the story.

In my next post, I will introduce the story of Emperor Qianlong, who was a very seasoned collector. Despite that fact, he bought a painting which he was certain to be a copy but which later turned out to be an original. It seems, therefore, that distinguishing between fake art and original art is not an easy task even for the trained collector.