Recently, The New York Times published an extensive report on China’s rising ‘culture of bidding’ and, specifically, its burgeoning art market beset with problems of forgery, fraud, and soaring payment defaults. The article has a lot of interesting things to say about buying and collecting art in China today:
Art has become a kind of currency, and collecting is so popular in China now that auctions are often mobbed. On Chinese television, more than 20 programs offer tips on collecting and on identifying cultural relics, and late-night infomercials promise quick riches to viewers who purchase a $2,500 collection of works by former students of renowned masters. Purchase today, the ad declares, and you can immediately secure a profit of $100,000. With so much at stake, Chinese art dealers have rushed to Europe and America to buy back Chinese relics. There has also been a rash of museum thefts involving Chinese antiquities. And a black market in artifacts has emerged, with so-called tomb raiders digging up buried treasures that they can sell.
The parts of the report that I enjoyed the most, not surprisingly, were the discussions of shanzhai culture in China. There’s a section on “Brand New Antiquities,” that begins with the story of a jade stool and dressing table set that sold in 2011 for a whopping $33 million. The set was said to date to the Han Dynasty, “But then experts began pointing out that Chinese did not sit on chairs during the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220). They sat on the floor.” Eventually, “a leader of the jade trade in Pizhou, a village in Jiangsu Province in eastern China, acknowledged that the pieces had been created by craftsmen there in 2010.”
The trail of phony “antiques,” bogus paintings and fake bronzes winds throughout China these days. In Jingdezhen, a city in the rugged mountains of southeast China, small workshops produce exquisite reproductions of Ming and Qing dynasty porcelain, the craftsmen going to some lengths to build the wood-fired kilns that help create the subtle textures and glazes. In Yanjian, a dusty village in central Henan Province, they use ammonia on bronze to induce corrosion and produce that same greenish, oxidized patina that comes from exposure, allowing a bell or ritual wine vessel made a few days ago to pass for an artifact unearthed from a tomb.
The article also discusses the ‘workshop’ approach to art forgeries, where seven or eight hundred artists might be gathered in a factory, with a clear division of labor, making the works of Qi Baishi or Zhang Daqian. “A study last year by Artron, an art data company based in China, estimated that as many as 250,000 people in about 20 Chinese cities may be involved in producing and selling fakes.” Over the past 20 years, works attributed to Qi Baishi alone have been put up for auction more than 27,000 times! One expert estimates that about half of the Qi Baishi works that come up for auction these days are fakes.
But the article acknowledges a broader understanding of shanzhai culture in China: there’s more to ‘faking it’ than just mimicry. The mimetic process is itself productive and creative:
In China, the tradition of copying reflects more than a simple reverence for the past; it is an appreciation that beauty has been captured in a fashion worth emulating. Unlike the West, where “the shock of the new” is admired, China values tradition, and its best-selling works often pay homage to, and look like, those made hundreds of years earlier. At prestigious art schools, students engage in what the Chinese refer to as “lin mo,” or imitating the masters. Forgery and fraud are not necessarily part of the tradition, experts say, though famous painters like Zhang Daqian, who died 30 years ago, took pleasure in fooling the experts. “Zhang Daqian felt he was an equal to the old masters,” said Maxwell K. Hearn, chairman of the Asian art department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. “And so the true test was whether he could copy them.”
One story that illustrates Mr. Zhang’s playful approach to copying concerns his 1967 trip to review an exhibition of the works of Shitao, a 17th-century painter, at the University of Michigan Museum of Art. His tour guides were proud to show him the works of such a famous painter, who had died more than two centuries earlier. So they were surprised when Mr. Zhang began to laugh and point to various works on the wall, saying: “I did that! And that.” “That is how Zhang Daqian talked,” said Marshall Wu, a retired professor at the University of Michigan who first met Mr. Zhang in the 1960s. “You never really knew if he was serious or kidding. But he did a lot of Shitao forgeries.” Mr. Zhang’s work now serves as a model for a painter in Beijing, Liang Zhaojin, who studied with the master and now works in his own classical style that is based on that tradition.
This creativity of fakery is something that was recently acknowledged by Blake Gopnik in a follow-up Op-Ed piece. Commenting on the recent case of an unknown (and unnamed) artist in Queens who turned out dozens of fake Pollocks, Rothkos, Klines and Motherwells, Gopnik reminds us that,
If a fake is good enough to fool experts, then it’s good enough to give the rest of us pleasure, even insight. The late Swiss collector Ernst Beyeler called a fake Rothko from Queens a “sublime unknown masterwork” in 2005 and hung it in his namesake museum. Why not think of that picture as the sublime masterwork that Rothko happened not to have got around to? Is it a bad thing if thousands more people in China get to own works by the great modern master Qi Baishi — even if the works they own aren’t actually by him? In some ways, they are by him, in the profound sense that they almost perfectly capture his unique contribution to art. If they didn’t, no one would imagine he’d made them.
Nor, Gopnik also reminds us, is this shanzhai spirit exclusive to China. The concept of ‘forgery’ in art hardly existed in the West prior to 1500. It took the development of a capitalist art market to create ‘dealers,’ ‘collectors,’ and ‘connoisseurs,’ resulting in new ideas that linked authenticity to originality. As Walter Benjamin, John Berger, and other critics have famously argued, ‘the original’ only became important when art became a commodity. And because of that, we’re stuck with a very narrow and impoverished conception of authenticity incapable of seeing mimesis as the creative act that it is.
Finally, the photographer Michael Wolf has an excellent series of photos of ‘real fake art’ in China. See the series here on Artnet.com. Wolf photographs artists proudly displaying their forgeries. Here’s an introduction to the series:
Copy art is a multimillion industry in China, which produces 70 percent of the copies of famous masterpieces and exports 80 percent of them to North America and Europe (a mere 20 percent remain in China). In his “Real Fake Art” series, Michael Wolf portrays the faces behind the recent explosion of this industry in China, uncovering the odd and subtle interplay between capitalism and the Chinese tradition of developing artistic skill by copying the works of master artists. His series explores the effects of mass production (the fastest workers can produce 30 paintings a day) with photographs of the artist or “entrepreneur” in the market environment. Each image conveys the fabric of our new global economy, which democratizes art and enables each and every one of us to own a Hopper.