Fighting fakes in Asia: Pioneering technology from Cranfield University and Bonhams may help

ART AUTHENTICATION TECHNOLOGY FORGERY

In a statement released in May 2011, Cranfield University and Bonhams, one of the world’s oldest and largest art auctioneers, publicised the establishment of a collaborative forensic science research project that represents significant advances in the authentication of art objects.

Below, we provide highlights from the announcement, which was published on the Cranfield University website, and consider its implications for the art market in China and other countries in Asia.

A worker decorates a porcelain pot in a workshop in Jingdezhen city, Jiangxi province, China. Photo by Ariel Steiner. Courtesy of en.wikipedia.org.

A worker decorates a porcelain pot in a workshop in Jingdezhen city, Jiangxi province, China. Photo: Ariel Steiner. Image from en.wikipedia.org.

Pioneering forensic technology

Forensic science is capable of detecting, recognising, and quantifying very rare elements, or trace elements, in an object based on samples extracted from it. The examination of trace elements can often help to pinpoint the object’s place—and sometimes date—of origin, if a good database already exists for similar objects. This procedure, referred to as “trace element analysis”, has various applications, from determining the primary source of organic foods to scrutinizing evidence taken from crime scenes.


Video (above): Forensic archaeology and anthropology students from the Cranfield Forensic Institute conduct their annual archaeological dig at Haslar Naval Hospital, Gosport.


Its use in the art market, however, has never been systematic, for two reasons: first, the very process of obtaining samples to analyse is usually unacceptably destructive to the object; and second, the available databases are neither specific nor detailed enough to be of help. The pioneering efforts of Cranfield and Bonhams are aimed at changing that situation.

The partner entities believe that the project will be highly valuable in the field of Chinese art, which of late has become one of the most active sectors of the global art market, especially in terms of the demand for fine antique porcelain. The clamour from collectors has encouraged highly accomplished forgers to circulate bogus pieces, which unwitting buyers snap up for inflated sums.

The ‘unavoidable’ problem of fakes

The proliferation of counterfeit objects has long been a problem in China. In October 2010, Global Times reporter Fu Wen wrote that the credibility of the domestic auction industry has suffered because of scandals involving fake auctions or auctions of fake objects at high prices. Compounding the issue is the fact that the current regulatory framework does not give buyers sufficient protection. In line with the current Auction Law, if the auctioneer and the client assert that they cannot guarantee the authenticity of an object before it goes under the hammer, neither party can be held responsible for any problems that crop up after the sale is concluded.

As a case in point, Fu cited what happened to Su Minluo, a Shanghai-based collector who paid CNY2.3 million (USD346,013) for a painting by Wu Guanzhong, during an auction by Hanhai Auction Company. After she found out that the painting was fake, Su filed a case against the company in 2008. Even though the artist himself proved that the work was forged, the Beijing No. 1 Intermediate People’s Court eventually ruled that the auction house was not responsible.

Wu Guanzhong, 'Pandas', 1992, Ink and color on paper, 123 x 248 cm, collection of the National Heritage Board. Photo by Donghee Yvette Wohn. Courtesy of flickr.com.

Wu Guanzhong, 'Pandas', 1992, Ink and color on paper, 123 x 248 cm, collection of the National Heritage Board. Photo by Donghee Yvette Wohn. Courtesy of flickr.com.

Wu, who passed away in June last year, had sought to stop sales of fake versions of his work whenever he could, with mixed results, and had remarked on the lack of legal barriers as facilitating cooperation between forgers and auctioneers to commit fraud.

Dong Guoqiang, the general manager of the Beijing Council International Auction Company, told Global Times that over 90 percent of artwork auctions in Beijing are controlled by 10 percent of the top auction companies, leaving the smaller players to tussle over the remainder. Thus, he said, it is “unavoidable that some small auction companies, which lack professionalism and self-discipline, charge illegal service fees to put fake artworks on the auction list”.

Ceramics for sale in Panjiayuan, a subdistrict of Chaoyang District, Beijing, which is famous for its flea markets. Photo by Ivan Walsh. Courtesy of flickr.com.

Ceramics for sale in Panjiayuan, a subdistrict of Chaoyang District, Beijing, which is famous for its flea markets. Photo by Ivan Walsh. Courtesy of flickr.com.

Even specialists are fooled on occasion. In a 2002 article for Destinasian, journalist Ron Gluckman noted that Dick Wang, who worked for five years as an expert on Chinese art at Sotheby’s in London and New York, had once purchased a Tang Dynasty horse for USD12,000 – a bargain price if the sculpture had not turned out to be a well-made fake.

Elsewhere in the same piece, Gluckman quoted Pola Antebi, the head of the Christie’s Chinese Ceramics and Works of Art Department in Hong Kong, as saying, “There’s no scientific test that is entirely accurate.” She added, however, that because forgers haven’t had the privilege of handling authentic pieces over a sustained period, the experience of experts with genuine antiques gives them an edge.

Arming the experts

It is possible that the Cranfield-Bonhams project will sharpen this edge, not only in China, but also in markets where falsification is rampant.

According to Colin Sheaf, the chairman of Bonhams Asia, and the international auctioneer’s senior Chinese art specialist, the “unique and unprecedented” Cranfield-Bonhams project is the “most exciting” he has ever seen, one that would be of immense benefit to both institutions, as well as to the larger academic and commercial art market.

A painted pot with dragon and phoenx relief from the Western Han Dynasty, 206-8 B.C. Presently in the Palace Museum of Beijing. Photo by Xuan Che. Courtesy of flickr.com.

A painted pot with dragon and phoenx relief from the Western Han Dynasty, 206-8 B.C. Presently in the Palace Museum of Beijing. Photo: Xuan Che. Image from flickr.com.

Dr Andrew Shortland, Reader in Forensic Archaeomaterials and Director of the Centre for Archaeological and Forensic Analysis at Cranfield said that he looked forward to “developing robust scientific techniques to help [Bonhams in identifying] copies and fakes”.

The issue of bogus artworks is not exclusive to China, of course, which means that the techniques and procedures arising from the Cranfield-Bonhams partnership will have applications far beyond the present concern with Chinese ceramics.

Janet Douglas, a conservation scientist at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in Washington, D.C., remarked in 2004 that faking occurs in virtually all major fields of Asian art. Art Radar Asia reported in 2009 that a forgery scandal erupted in South Korea after a Park Soo-keun painting was sold for a record sum, while a more recent article in The Telegraph explored the shadowy world of falsified artworks in Kolkata and other parts of India.

A scientist undertakes a laboratory procedure to test the authenticity of an object. Image courtesy of Julian Roup, Director of Press and Marketing for Bonhams.

A scientist undertakes a laboratory procedure to test the authenticity of an object. Image courtesy Bonhams.

The Cranfield-Bonhams collaboration brings together the specialist technology and forensic science expertise of the university on the one hand, and the practical input and core data material of the auctioneer on the other. The project will reportedly be able to identify ever-smaller proportions of trace elements using non-invasive sampling, and compare it with a sufficiently wide, coherent range of authentic objects, allowing problems caused by years of faking to be addressed in an easy, reliable manner.

JS/KN/HH

Related Topics: market transparency, business of artChinese art and artists

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Comments

Fighting fakes in Asia: Pioneering technology from Cranfield University and Bonhams may help — 2 Comments

  1. It is a fact that the examination of minute elements is probably the best examination for the authentication of works of art.
    Prof. Leon Silver of Caltech has authenticated the Mansoor amarna collection in 1959, one year after the discovery of enrichment of barium and copper on the surface of desert rocks. His report has been highly praised by the late Sir Harold J. Plenderleith, (former Director of the British Museum Laboratory, then Founder and first Director Emeritus of ICCROM, UNESCO) who also has personally authenticated the collection. Sir Plenderleith and Prof. Siver reports can both be seen on the Mansoor amarna collection website at: http://www.mansooramarnacollection.com/

  2. Sounds much better than Oxford Authentication as this method does not damage the object.
    Could you let me know if any of the test results done by this way has been adopted by other big auctioneers such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s?
    Could you also let me know the cost if I bring in one piece for testing?
    Thx.

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