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Fakes of Qing Dynasty Style Furniture

Fakes: The Real vs. the Somewhat Real

The Chinese,as everyone know, excel at the art of reproduction. They have been practicing this art probably for as long as they have been making originals.

Even in the 18th century, when trade with Europe was expanding and Western goods were all the rage among Chinese consumers, craftsmen who lived in the coastal regions would makes copies of "the European goods and ship them to the interior provinces to be sold as the real thing. One hundred years ago, Chinese forgers were making copies of Chinese artifacts that were made one thousand years ago.

Sometimes, copies and forgeries, as in the above example, are an effort to deceive, but sometimes they are an effort to compliment and preserve. This is one of those cultural distinctions we'venoted else - where in the book, and it may have little importance for antique buyers, but it's worth a sentence or two.

The idea is that if something is beautiful once, it can be beautiful once, it can be beautiful twice if an exact copy is made. Consider the process as someting of a compliment to the art and design of the original as well as the product of a society that has, for centuries,palced little value on the status of the individual, on being unique. Chinese culture has also tended to view time cyclically. The calendar started over with each new emperor so the concept of assigning a higher valur to one thing because it is chronologically older than something else is a bit off the track in China. And don't forget that the Chinese world for antiqie, gu( Chapter One ), doesn't mean "older so much as it means " better." There are old antuques and new antiques.

That said, a lot of fakes have noting to do with a cyclical view of the calendar. They are noting more than an effort to deceive, and antique buyers should know how to spot the deception. It's usually not that hard.

And, fortunately, with decorative pieces from the late Qing dynasty, it's not that common. You're far more likely to find reproductions or pieces that have been substantially reconstructed with new wood than you are to find outright fakes.

Let's start with the use of new wood to patch up old furniture. It's not at all unusual, in both Western and Asian circles, to use new wood to make minor patches on an old piece (and then there is the sign we saw outside a shop in Bali - "Antiques made to order.") The antique value becomes less on any such piece. It happens in order to make the piece presentable and saleable. But at some point piece stops being old.

We once visited a furniture shop in China and saw a bookshelf undergoing an unusual restoration routine. The piece had five shelves and open sides,back, and front, supported by vertical posts on each corner. But the only piece of old, original wood left was one of the shelves. Everything else - four shelves and four corner posts - was fresh off the truck from whatever passes for Home Depot in China. We have similarly seen cabinets where one entire side is new wood and tables with one, two, or three legs repalced. Remember that most of this furniture sustained significant damage, both through neglect and breakage. The question becomes how much restoration you want in the piece you are buying.

The best way to guard againt aberrations in authenticity is by picking a good dealer. Find someone who can speak authoritatively about the blackground of pieces, where they come from, what they were made, and the history of the period itself. A dealer who cares enough to learn about the culture that produced these pieces will likely care enough to make sure the quality is high.

More specifically, ask whether any part of the piece you're interested in has new construction. You can look for yourself, and we'll show you how in a paragraph or two, but qualifying your dealer is an important part of the process.

We go throgh the same process when we buy furniture in China. We not only scrutinize each piece but also scrutinize the dealer who's selling it. We've found antique dealers
in China to be about as honest and truthful as antique dealers in the U.S. It varies.If he or she insists that a piece is all original with original finish and hardware but we can spot some restoration work, that dealer loses a lot of credibility and probably a lot of business. More importantly, we rarely buy a piece that we have not seen and photo-graphed in its unrestored condition, so we can see what was broken and what was eventually fixed or replaced. And if we haven't been able to do that, we insist on being given a photograph of the piece in its original condition. We then show these photographs to our U.S. customers who are considering a purchase.

If you dealers doesn't have an original-condition photography and doesn't know as much as you had hoped for about the piece, but you 're in love with it nonetheless, snoop around a bit yourself. If it's a cabinet, open the doors and spend some time with your head inside. Do the structural pieces look like they were cut with hand tools or do they have the neat, crisp edges that come from a modern power saw? What about the inside of the side and back panels; do they look weathered and old or freshly made? Try to find places where the wood has contracted and exposed the edge of one piece of wood where it used to join another piece. Sometimes you can see the bare, raw wood, and if it looks bright and yellow or white, it's probably new wood.

Look at the back of the cabinet for the same signs- weathered-looking wood and rough cuts instead of clean ones. If possible, try to look at the bottom of the cabinet's legs. They should look as if they've been dragged around a bit, even chipped away at the edges. If they're squared off, neat, and even, that' one sign of a new leg. The bottom of legs is also a spot that doesn't get lacquered or colored,so you can often gauge the relavite age of the wood.

The same process works for tables and chairs. Look underneath or turn them upside down, always checking for signs of weathered wood and cuts made by imprecise hand tools. The Chinese sometimes moved chair by dragging them across the floor on the backs of their rear legs.So some wear and chiping in those spots might be expected, although restoration craftsmen sometimes just cut the legs down to remove excessive damage to the bottoms.

The latter practice raise an interesting point about altteration and repair. It's not unusual to find tables that have been shortened or one piece of furniture that has been pieced together from others. Such pieces can often be authentic and culturally accurate. The Chinese sometimes did this for themselves, to make a piece more useful, but more often they did it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries to accommodate Western buyers living in China.

We've seen Eight Immortals tables, which normally stand about 34 inches tall, cut down to become coffee table height. Such alterations are not necessarilly a reason to shy away. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London owns one of the preeminent Chinese furniture collections in the world, and it includes just such an altered piece, as does the National Museum in Taipei.

Again - buy what you like, the piece that speak to you, but know what you are buying.

Sometimes, however, you can't know what you're buying. The work is just too good, the fakery too clever.We've talked in this chapter about looking for new wood in old pieces. But we know of dealers in China who use old wood to rebuild old pieces. We've seen hundreds of beams and timbers taken from old houses that were torn down. Their faded lumber was stacked in the yard of one production shop. The wood is truly old, and it goes into rebuilding and repairing battered old furniture, which then sell for high prices because of its original condition. Some of it may even go into making erntirely new pieces, although that level of forgery occurs largely at the high end of the scale, the collector and museum quality pieces that came from the wealthiest, most elite Chinese homes and which command the highest prices.

For thoese not in that league, it's extremely important to know why you are buying a piece of antique furniture. It's easy to caught up in the "investment value" of a piece when that issue is not necessarily the most relevant. If you're buying antique furniture as an investment, you should load up on research and become as knowledgeable as a dealer.

Even so, while antiques were rated one of the best investments of the 1980s, they were also one of the least liquid. A Chippendale high boy may be worth more this year than last, but selling it at the higher price is tricky. It has to appreciate beyond a dealer markup before it can return a profit to the retail buyer. Investing in antiques is a lot like investing in art. Buy it because you like it and because it will bring you great pleasure when you look at it. Even in ancient China, " examining one's antiques" was considered an appropriate pastime for scholars and gentlemen. But to buy a piece because you plan to resell it at a higher price requires great skill and great patience.

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