China’s Art Market: Boom or Bust?

Art up for auction

Art up for auction in Hong Kong last February. Image Credit: Vincent Yu/AP

NPR’s Morning Edition recently discussed China’s booming art market.  Some auction houses are raking in millions of dollars a month; however, it appears that many of the artworks sold are forgeries.

This past June, a painting—supposedly by artist Xu Beihong, who died in 1953—sold at auction for $11 million (10+07).  But Zhang Yanhua, president of the Chinese Association for Auctioneers says, “‘It’s totally laughable. . .That picture doesn’t look anything like Xu Beihong’s wife.’ He says the picture was one of several painted by art students in his class at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in 1983, 30 years after the artist’s death. The model was a peasant farmer.”

Wang Yanqing, a 66-year-old painter in Inner Mongolia remembers painting the model along side other students: “‘Suddenly this new model came—a young girl from the south who’d never modeled before, and everyone was very excited. We all wanted to draw her, so almost 20 of us crowded into the same room. It was one of my most successful pictures. I still have it in my studio.’”

Gong Jisui, a former Sotheby’s expert (now a visiting scholar in Beijing at CAFA) explains that there are currently no standards in Chinese auction houses: “It’s really, really bad. For the classical Chinese paintings, most of the pieces are disputable…Also, for modern Chinese paintings, there is a serious problem with authenticity issues.”

In the process of authenticating an artwork and determining its provenance, there are often obvious visual clues as to whether or not an artwork is a forgery.  In other cases, forensic methods have to be employed.  A few of the many forensic methods used to authenticate artworks are listed below:

  • Carbon dating can measure the age of an object up to 10,000 years old (10+04).
  • White Lead dating can determine the age of an object up to 1,600 years old (10+03).
  • Conventional X-rays can reveal whether or not there is an earlier work below the surface of a painting.
    X-rays have a wavelength in the range of 0.01 to 10 nanometers.  This corresponds to frequencies in the range of 30 petahertz to 30 exahertz (3×10+16 to 3×10+19 hertz) and energies in the range 120 electron volts to 120 kiloelectron volts (10-19 to 10-14 joules).
  • Infrared analysis can detect if repairs were made to a painting.  Infrared measures roughly 300 micrometers (or 10+09 meters) with wavelengths corresponding to a frequency of about 400 terahertz (or 10+15 hertz).
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