Monday, May 9, 2011

Chinese Buddhist sculpture and Fakes

Dear Reader,

This will be my first post here about what has become a new passion of mine, early Chinese Buddhist Sculpture dating from the Wei to the Tang Dynasties, from about 400 to 900 A.D.. I have always admired examples when I came across them, but not knowing that much about the period and type, paid them little mind other than that. My first encounter with one of these sculptures was at Harvard, a 6th Century A.D. marble bodhisattva, see below, which I found beautiful not only for its quality of carving and elegant style, but remarkable for its preservation as it had extensive color and gilding remaining.

Standing Bodhisattva
Chinese, 6th Century A.D.
White marble with polychromy, Height: 36 1/2 inches.
Harvard Art Museums

Harvard, thanks largely to the Grenville Winthrop bequest, and more recently the Sackler gifts, has a wonderful collection of ancient Chinese art, with many fine examples of early Buddhist sculpture. But I went on for most of my life looking at, and dealing in Classical antiquities; the art of Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt. Over the past five years or so, I began to see beautiful early Chinese art on the market, for prices that were approachable for me, and I started to buy a few pieces. At first, when I saw the archaic jades and Buddhist sculptures, I assumed they could not be real; but over time, as I learned and looked, I began to see that these were great ancient works of art. But one problem with the field is just that, the doubt that is sowed by dealers and cognoscenti in the field, who say that most material on the market is fake. The frequently heard phrase is that the Chinese can make anything, it is their own culture and they have been copying older styles for centuries. Some go so far as to say that the historic collections in our great museums are full of fakes made for the Western market in the 19th and early 20th Century. Which of course leaves one with the question of what are you to believe, what is real, if you cannot even trust the museums where you trained your eye. However, as Chinese art was not my field, I was unaware of the extent of this attitude and a personal watershed moment occured when I visited a friend who is a dealer, who pulled out of his storeroom a small fragmentary marble Buddhist sculpture, about 8 inches tall, the torso and head of a bodhisattva, with drapery and jewels in the Tang style, perfect surfaces, and root marks and traces of encrustation. It was an incredible sculpture of extremely high quality and conviction, and he told me people were telling him it was a fake. I said I couldn't believe that, and offered to buy it, but alas, didn't have the money at that moment. About five years after that this dealer held an exhibition of Chinese Buddhist sculpture, and you began to see some Buddhist sculptures with other dealers. The scholars had changed their tune, what they were saying was fake a few years ago, they now believed in.

My first real job in New York in 1982, was working for the distinguished antiquities dealer, Mathias Komor. He had started his career in China working for an uncle in the foreign section of Peking, dealing in Chinese sculpture and antiquities. He left China during the revolution and started dealing in Classical antiquities, as it was then impossible to get art out of China. He told me, "Buy with your eyes, not your ears." This has stayed with me and served me very well. The meaning is this; look, think for yourself, and don't always believe what you read or people tell you. He pointed out that most of what he dealt in had no signatures, no labels, and you had to place them by style and use connoisseurship in judging the objects. For me, it has meant that I have been able to buy objects, often at major auction houses, that were incorrectly cataloged, as Nineteenth Century, and then prove their antiquity, reaping a nice profit from rescuing them from ignominy. So I am used to thinking for myself, and trusting my own eye.

Over the past few years I began to buy archaic Chinese jades, and have now moved into buying Buddhist sculpture. As a former friend of mine who is a major antiquities collector once said to me, "you take candy when they are handing it out." Meaning, that when great things are available, you buy them. This is the moment for early Chinese art, as for the past decade or so there has been a lot of material coming into the market, and only in 2009 did China ban the export of archeological material. The market and scholars were not unprepared for the flood of material, and it has only recently begun to be processed. Scholars, many who are Chinese, are shedding new light on the material, new archeological finds are putting them into context, and the market is starting to catch up. What this still means, though, is that the prices are a fraction of what comparable material would be in Classical antiquities or even Indian and Southeast Asian art. It is an incredible time to be looking at this field.

However, the whole issue of authenticity, while it works to my advantage at the moment by depressing the prices of what I want to buy, scares off potential collectors. For myself, I do not believe that the great historic museums are full of fakes, I do not believe that in the late 19th early 20th Centuries, the Chinese were making fake sculptures to sell to Western Collectors and museums. While there are certainly fakes being made today, their quality is low, and easily distinguished from the masterpieces I have been acquiring. (I also have scientific and scholarly reports on most of my sculptures which certify their authenticity.) However support for my point of view is found in the latest scholarship, published in recent exhibition catalogs.

The best refutation of the great museums being riddled with fakes comes in one of those catalogs, Treasures Rediscovered, Chinese Stone Sculpture from the Sackler Collections at Columbia University, published in 2008. In one of its introductory essays by Stanley Abe, From Stone to Sculpture: the Alchemy of the Modern. His essay states that the Chinese themselves were historically not interested in stone sculpture, they were interested in the inscriptions on early monuments for their historic and calligraphic interest, but they had no interest in the sculptures associated with them. A frequent practice of the Chinese was to take rubbings of the inscriptions on the stelas and other monuments, but with no recording of the sculptures on them. In the West, Abe has this to say, "Before 1905, Westerners did not think that China had produced significant works of sculpture..." In China, he points out that there were no Fine Art museums at the beginning of the 20th Century, and that the Chinese had no word for Fine Art, importing from Japan terms for art criticism. He goes on to further say, "In contrast, however to long-established types of prized aesthetic objects-- calligraphy and painting, antique bronze vessels, ancient jades, and ceramics-- sculpture was not collected or appreciated by Chinese connoisseurs." As China began to be explored by Westerners, and with the advent of photography, interest and knowledge of Chinese Buddhist sculpture began to be disseminated, and examples to be acquired by Western collectors and museums. However, even as museums began to exhibit examples of Buddhist sculptures, there was little interest by collectors in it.

A striking example of the general lack of interest in Chinese sculpture, is the story that Abe tells about the great dealer, C.T. Loo: "...Loo's Peking office acquired eight large stone statues--said to be from the Southern Xiangtangshan caves--but was unable to sell them in China. They were shipped to Paris but elicited no interest, and Loo asked his fellow Parisian dealer Charles Vignier to take a half share of the group. Photographs were circulated all over Europe, yet no buyers could be found. Finally, in 1915, Loo's photographs sparked interest in the United States..." Some were sold to Philadelphia, and other institutions here, but even so, this story repudiates the idea that there was this huge market for Chinese sculpture supporting the production of fakes. Given the chaos in China at this time, as the empire ended and the nation fell apart, collections were being sold, and new finds were being sold into the market; there was surfeit of material, there was no need to fake things.

Today is different, while there is a wealth of real material, there are fakes being made, but generally of low quality easily distinguished from the genuine objects of high quality. Further, scientific examination helps sort out the fakes. The whole issue of fakes serves dealers interests though, "only trust me, everything other people have is fake." This destructive attitude serves their short-term interests but damages the confidence of potential buyers in the market. However, I have observed that perseverance and vision eventually win the day as scholarship is now validating things that only a few short years ago were in question. Meantime, I will acquire every piece that I feel is beautiful and high quality, while they can still be had. Of course, I am a dealer, and sadly, I do have to part with incredible things, which cannot be replaced. But the pleasure of having had them in my possession, even if for a short time, brings me great joy, and enlightens me as learn through reading and studying the objects.


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Unknown said...

Love your Blog and found it because I am having a hard time authenticating a Guanyin granite 4' statue completely covered with limestone concretion 1/16th inch thick. My budget is small so I will radiocarbon date the CaCO3's carbon which half came from the CO2 in the air above the tomb, and precipitated as limestone on the tomb statue. If that looks favorable (ie: no 100,000 years date meaning its a modern patina) then I will pay the $1500 for a uranium thorium isotope dating which is the same test they use on absolute dating on stalagtites and stalagmites. It only matches one other statue of Guanyin that has an inscription dating it to 243 AD. If correct, my statue would be one of the earliest Guanyin stone statues, right after the upturn of Buddhism from India. Email me at for more info. Here's the pictures. Click the (...) tool on the bottom right to view original huge size to see the concretion.

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Abindra Raj Dangol said...

Hey Tom Swope, i have heard that Chinese fake sculptures are very hard to find out because they mold in such a way that the fault can never be seen. That's why people tends to buy Buddha statues from south asian countries apart from china. but after i reading your article, i learned more about this.
Thanks for making me clear.

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