Sophistication of Chinese Counterfeits Makes Them Harder to Detect: Can You Tell the Fake From the Real?

Counterfeiters in southern China are producing copies of 2,000-year-old pottery soldiers, horses and dancing ladies with such skill and sophistication these days that experts say they are finding it increasingly difficult to detect the fake from the real.

By reusing bits of ancient clay found at excavation sites throughout China, forgers are producing objects that not only look convincing but also pass a scientific test widely used to date the pottery.

Giuseppe Eskenazi, head of one of the best-known galleries dealing in Chinese artwork, Eskenazi, says with time and patience, fakes can be detected. But he called the counterfeits a “very difficult problem.”

“Everybody has been at one time or another a victim of this,” he said.

Julian Thompson, chairman of Sotheby’s Asia, says he comes across what he suspects are fakes “more or less every day.” He stopped giving lectures on how to detect spurious pieces several years ago, he says, because he suspected the forgers were listening — and learning.

Counterfeiters in China have long been known to churn out fake Gucci bags and Rolex watches. But for the forgers of ancient pottery pieces the potential rewards — and skills required — are considerably higher.

Han Dynasty pieces, perhaps most common among the forgeries, can fetch anywhere from several hundred dollars to more than $150,000, according to experts at Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction houses. Most pottery from the Han period (206 B.C.- A.D. 220) is excavated from graves and was designed to give comfort in the afterlife. Typical pieces include models of houses, animal pens, cups, dancing ladies, soldiers and horses.

Forgeries are nothing new in the world of Chinese antiquities. But experts say the current wave of fakes, which began about two years ago, represents the first time that high-quality forgeries are being produced on such a large scale.

Doreen Stoneham, director of Oxford Authentication, a leading company in the field of dating pottery and ceramics, says the modern forgers are “very, very much more skillful.”

The test used by Mrs. Stoneham’s company uses a technique known as thermoluminescence and was developed in the 1960s as a means of dating pottery recovered from archeological digs. By measuring the radiation level emitted by a tiny sample drilled from the object, the test determines when the pottery was last fired in a kiln. Pieces that pass the test are given a certificate, which is often prominently displayed in galleries in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

But Mrs. Stoneham and other experts stress that the test simply certifies that the sample, often just 100 milligrams (0.0035 ounce) of powder, is of a certain era, not that the piece itself is genuine. Because many of the better fakes are made from ancient clay that is either recarved, spliced together from shards or ground down and rebuilt, the pieces pass the test and receive the certificate.

Forgers do not always assemble their pieces from scratch. Some tweak genuine objects to make them look more original or rare — and thus more likely to fetch high prices. “A lot of pieces are being manipulated,” Mrs. Stoneham said. “There might be a rather boring soldier, for instance, not fetching much, so they would manipulate the arms into various positions on the bodies. Instead of standing straight they’d be pointing to the moon, or pointing to the floor.”

Mr. Eskenazi said: “I’ve seen figures or horses which are doing the strangest things: in a full gallop with all four legs stretched out being made to look like polo players. You know that the legs were never stretched out in the original because when you look at the joints, the legs went down and there was just a horse standing four-square.”

Chi Fan, a specialist who works for Christie’s in Hong Kong, says she has visited one of the workshops where the fakes are produced. The methods, she says, are low-tech. But the result is impressive. “They know exactly what we’re looking for when we look at pieces,” she said. “And obviously once they hear of things they will change just to make sure that we are fooled.”

Specialists interviewed for this article gave the following advice to potential buyers of Chinese pottery:

If there is any doubt as to a piece’s authenticity, insist on a guarantee such as the one provided by major auction houses: If it is fake, the deal is off.

Certificates showing that a piece has undergone scientific testing are only a small part of determining whether the piece is genuine. Consult experts who can check for inconsistencies in style and other telltale signs.

“We’ve been aware of this for the last year and a half,” said Pola Antebi, associate director for Chinese ceramics at Christie’s in Hong Kong. “We are becoming a lot more discerning.”

The thermoluminescence test is more reliable for porcelain than it is for pottery. Porcelain that has been cut or pasted can usually be detected by the naked eye.

Henry Howard-Sneyd, a specialist in Chinese ceramics at Sotheby’s in London, said: “Porcelain is impossible to cut up. You’d never get two shapes that matched exactly.”

“As a last resort,” he said, “a pottery piece can be X-rayed to check if it has been cobbled together from disparate parts or tinkered with.”

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