HOW TO SPOT A FAKE ARTIFACT (The Louis Way)
Modern science may dazzle us with thermoluminescence testing, and radio carbon dating (carbon-14) but at the end of the day, in my opinion, there is nothing on earth that can match the perception of the human eye, and that plain old “gut feeling”
Over the years I have seen professional dealers and collectors utilize all five senses, in the evaluation of an art object, I tend to call it E.S.F. (extra sensory forensics) if you can think of better terminology, let me know, and you will be acknowledged, and receive exalted status….. (only for about a week or so, then I take all the credit!)
The most important of the senses when it comes to collecting, sight tells us the tooling techniques used, size, visual power, form and presence of an object, (aesthetics) the quality, condition, colour, patination, and whether an object has been restored or modified. (Fakers love to modify a new or authentic piece, because the hard work has already been done, they are, more or less, working with a blank canvas)
Will let us know the weight of an object, whether it is made of stone, metal, soft or hard wood, cotton or silk, we can also feel the texture of the surface, whether it is rough, smooth or polished. Touch is a good indicator for silver. Silver is a very good conductor of heat, and will quickly warm up in the hands.
Beating an African drum, a New Guinea kundu, or playing an aboriginal didjeridoo, will let us hear the quality of sound, tapping the sides of a wooden object can also tell us if it is hollow, or there is termite damage, listening to the opinion and experiences of other dealer and collectors, can inform us, and greatly affect our purchasing patterns.
The nose can inform us if an object has been recently waxed, is suffering from dry rot, or has been kept in a primitive smokey environment. Some people, including myself, can even smell a fake! … only joking!…….well! not really………..I’m still laughing!………must be the wine!
Believe it or not, I have seen collectors at auction previews slobber all over, and lick artifacts to see if they are genuine! Yeah! yeah! …….you heard correctly,…..don’t laugh! ….licking an object, then rubbing the wet area with the thumb to see whether the patina is a fake. (a fake applied patina will usually rub off) This should not be done for obvious reasons, one has to think of the next person who has to handle the object, but then again, maybe the whole idea of sucking on an artifact at an auction preview is to put other potential buyers off!
Now, all of the above five senses, in fine working order, are completely useless without a good brain to compute all the data, and a memory to make comparisons of similar objects that have been viewed, and studied in the past, when all of this bonds together, this is where the euphoric “gut feeling” kicks in, basically, what happens, is that you instinctive know, almost immediately, if an item is a dud, or the real thing.
My own personal view is extremely cynical, in that absolutely everything is a fake, unless proved otherwise! I’m even convinced that most of the treasure found by “Indianna Jones” was all fake!….Every institution would have many fakes in their collections, but would rarely admit to it, I mean, how could they? spending good taxpayers money on rubbish in an effort to justify their overseas junkets.
I have even seen private collections where the fakes outnumber the genuine pieces! I remember a good friend of mine, over a number of years, buying up quite a few fakes, and very low quality artifacts, when I questioned him about it, he replied that the objects were cheap to buy, and that it was all part of his learning process, I replied, “well how long do you want to keep on learning,….ten years,…twenty years,………… how long?”
Collectors can be their own worst enemy, when the power of possessiveness, mixes with that of greed, the results can be fairly disastrous, some sweaty collectors at auction (always sitting at the front) can almost “will” an object to be genuine! ….. just think about that one……..(I’m sure we all know someone who could fit that category) okay, I think that we have reached a point, and are now starting to get somewhere, there are basically four ways of spotting a fake, they are, Tooling Techniques, Patina, Style & materials used, we will look individually at each one.
Adze, or chisel marks that are of irregular size, shape, depth and pattern.
A metal woodworking chisel will leave an almost perfect parallel groove, that has the same shape, or camber throughout its length.
This one is a little bit tricky, sometimes a woodcarver will use a rough piece of sandstone or similar stone to smooth the surface of a wooden object, some collectors will see this, and may dismiss an object thinking that a metal file has been used. A piece of wood that has been smoothed using a piece of stone will leave irregular scratch marks, a file on the other hand, will leave perfectly parallel striations.
Holes can be bored or pecked out in a clamshell, drilled or burnt through a piece of wood using a red hot nail, or piece of fencing wire, abraded through stone, drilled or punched through a thin piece of metal. (a hole that has been punched will be concave and smooth at the front, convex and jagged at the back)
This will be of great interest and benefit to collectors, and a classic example of tooling techniques. Years ago, I read about jade carving, which is really a misnomer, as you cannot carve jade, it’s too hard, (about 7 on the Moh scale of hardness) it was laboriously abraded into shape, here is how they did it, understand this, and you are nearly half way there……..
Many ancient civilizations who worked with jade would abrade a hole using just a wooden stick,…… how is this possible you say?….. it was very simple,……they would dip the end of the stick into animal fat, then dip the stick into a pulverized mineral powder that was harder than the jade, this mineral was carborundum, (9 on the Moh scale of hardness, and just below that of a diamond) this they used as their cutting compound. The stick could be rotated between the palms of the hand, or a simple bow mechanism used, with a downward pressure applied. Now this is where it all gets very interesting, when boring the hole, the stick would wander all over the place until it got a foot hold, then the serious grinding process would begin. At the end of the day, if you took a cross section of the hole it would be conical in shape, wider at the top, narrower at the bottom, but they rarely bored straight through. They would only go in half way, turn the object over and repeat the process all over again, until the two holes finally met. If we now take a cross section of the hole, it would be shaped like an hourglass, but sometimes the the two holes did not line up, when you look down through the hole, it is shaped like the “figure eight” now this is understanding “tooling techniques” this hole was definitely not made by using a modern power drill!.
Patina is the natural aging on the surface of a material, caused through polishing (as in furniture) handling, weathering, and in the case of metals, oxidation. Genuine patina will not come off if wiped with a damp cloth, or with methylated spirits. There are two types of patina, with variations of each, (an inside or outside patina) A statue kept inside a house will have a far different patina to one that has been placed outside in the weather.
Patina can be faked on virtually every material, here is a short summary. (I could write a book on this subject)
Wooden sculpture can be buried in soil, tied to an embankment, and thrown into a fast flowing river, broken, fed to insects, smoked, stained, dyed, burnt, waxed, oiled, polished, painted or even given to the dog to play with. Statues that have been buried are easy to spot, as soil will have penetrated into every hole and crevice, sculpture that has been knocking up and down in a river for a few months will look bleached, and contain sand and small pebbles. The last two methods are very popular with fake Dayak material.
This one is a real beauty, and has been lately catching a lot of Indonesian art collectors, dealers and institutions, new gold is boiled in a secret recipe of “herbs & spices” to give the pinkish/reddish patina that is found on most excavated archaic pieces. I have seen pieces that are so good, they would bring tears to a glass eye. The Indonesians are so smug and confident with this one, that they will invest many thousands of dollars in solid gold bullion just to make one masterpiece, knowing that they can double, triple, or quadruple their investment in such a short time, and that there is always another sucker just around bemo corner, (he! he! I can’t help myself, for the uninitiated, Bemo corner is a well known landmark in Kuta, Bali) Collectors think that because the gold is genuine, then the item must be genuine also, but the fakers know, unlike other materials, that there is no such thing as an ugly piece of gold, and as I have stated before, collectors can be their own worst enemy.
Stone sculpture can also be placed in a fast flowing river, buried, sandblasted, trickled with dilute hydrochloric acid, or “distressed” using a “controlled breakage” technique. I remember a Gandharan head that had heavy pitting on it’s cheek. The pitting was “star shaped” and looked fairly convincing. On close inspection, (under magnification) the star shape was caused by a series of small chisel marks worked in a circular fashion to simulate damage.
Of all the materials, bronze is one of the most difficult for collectors to understand, unlike iron objects that just go rusty, bronze can be a variety of colours, it can be green, brown, reddish, blue, black, silvery, or a combination of each. The reason for this is because of the material itself, bronze is basically a mixture of copper and tin, with various trace elements, that also react to oxidation. The variation of colour can be put down to the copper and tin ratio, keeping also in mind that the artists could only smelt whatever metals were available at the time, the casting of bronze was never an exact science. (bronze that has a silvery patination, has a high tin content that resists corrosion)
Other factors taken into consideration are, whether the bronze had been excavated, and if so, how long had it been in the ground, was the soil well drained, acidic, or was it found buried under silt in a freshwater river, or salvaged from the bottom of the ocean floor. Genuine bronze artifacts will not have any sharp edges, oxidation would have corroded the metal so that all the edges would be smooth to the touch. A heavy oxidation will be blister like in appearance, almost like a green rust, where the patination has swelled up on the surface of the metal, and will not wipe off with solvents.
Judging the difference between a genuine and fake style takes certain knowledge and experience, it is a matter of handling and studying as many artifacts as possible, even scrutinizing items that are of no interest to you at the time, as maybe one day your taste will change, and when they do, you will already have a basic understanding in that particular field.
I remember showing a photograph of a large pair of Korean statues (about 250 kilo each) made out of weathered granite to a curator of asian art at a large national gallery. The statues were tomb guardians, Yi dynasty, (about 16th. century) and identical to the one that was in the Brooklyn Museum collection. I found the two statues in a Japanese garden, where the owner told me, that they had been taken out of Korea just before annexation. The curator on seeing the photo, exclaimed that the statues were much later, about 19th. century, she could not give a reason, why she thought this, I felt quite embarrassed for her as she was quite wrong, the granite was not only well weathered, but she should have been able to see from the photo, that the statues were dressed in Ming style costume and carrying a baton of office, not only did she fail to understand the Ming/Confucian style of the Yi dynasty, but she did not know about Korean history, where Confucianism was ousted in the 19th. century, and buddhism made a resurgence that still carries on to this day.
Another example of a fake style would be the humble Balinese Wuku calender. The calender is usually a rectangular wooden board with every day of the year marked on it, beads and coral are inlaid, marking auspicious days and important events. The Balinese lunar cycle consists of 210 days, (7 down x 30 days across) but it is not uncommon to find calenders with strange amounts of numbers, where the Javanese faker has no idea of the local Balinese customs whatsoever.
Other examples of fake styles are:
Genuine 9th.century Indonesian gold earrings that have been converted into rings because they are easier to sell.
A kris (wavy bladed dagger) where the blade comes from Java, the hilt from Sumatra, and the sheath from Bali, nice to look at, but a complete composite
Asmat sculpture carved with big Hindu eyes and monkey like faces,…….oh! so cute……..but made in Bali.
Dayak masks with big brass earrings that are suspended from the earlobes, by long red strips of cotton. (mass produced, and all over Bali)
A complete set of Japanese samurai armour assembled from parts that are from different periods in history. There are no shortage of spare parts for sale in Japan, every part of the armour, including original storage boxes, can be purchased on the Japanese internet.
Let’s face it, to make a good fake takes a tremendous amount of specialized skill and hard work, first you have to find the correct material, carve it in the proper style, age the item, then apply a convincing patina. Why bother with all that, when all it takes is one authentic item, five minutes work with a pen and a little imagination, to create a fake provenance. (international dealers have been known to buy, and switch old labels from mediocre pieces on to rare artifacts to fake provenance and increase value) An object with an impeccable provenance can sell for up to five times it’s retail value, and in some rarer cases, much, much more.
High quality fake artifacts are even pre planted in remote villages, for collectors to “discover” usually they are taken to an isolated location by a local guide, or antique runner, and given one long ghost story about the provenance, anyone who is part of the con, gets a share of the profits, as soon as the items are sold, they are quickly replaced with similar items for the next sucker to find.
Beware of provenance such as, “collected by some old sea captain with a peg leg, missionary, district patrol officer” or the items were “salvaged from a 17th. century Dutch wreck” with the amount of so called treasure that has come on to the market these days, some of those old Dutch ships must have been the size of aircraft carriers!……..auction houses can be the worst offenders, in more ways than one, and can rarely be trusted, they are nothing more than used art salesmen, yet, some of them are so far up themselves, that they are almost turned inside out!………do not forget about the Captain Cook boomerang that was due to go to auction, but was withdrawn from sale in September last year because of provenance issues………I’ll bet that that boomerang will return to hit them hard on the head for a very long time. Dubious items can also be laundered through an auction house, even if the item fails to sell, just by having it’s photo in an auction catalogue, it’s provenance has been created, making it easier to sell the second time around.
Now!….. you will not believe this, but I have in my collection a beautiful miniature Korean chest, it is nothing special, but it once belonged to Emperor Hirohito’s own personal physician, yeah! yeah!….I know what you are all thinking…. but listen!…. I purchased it from a descendent of the family in Japan and have the paperwork to prove it……..truly!…… now!….. how easy would it be for me to say that the chest was actually given to the doctor as a gift from Emperor Hirohito?………eh!……what did I just say?…….if that could be the case!…….who gave it to Emperor Hirohito?…….maybe it was passed down from Genghis Khan when he and his Mongol hordes invaded Korea in the 13th. century…….sorry guys!…….the mind is working overtime!………I’ve got to go!……..I need to quickly find a pen, and contact Shonky’s Fine Art Auctions!……now!
Money wise, the fake art industry world wide could be counted in the many billions of dollars, it’s no surprise, that China is one of the biggest polluters, there, they not only fake antiquities from every known Chinese dynasty, but fake artifacts from cultures yet to be discovered!…..yeah! work that one out!….they make dinosaur eggs look so good, that if you sat on them, I reckon they would hatch!…..there are fossils, Japanese armour and swords, (bad quality though) Tibetan and Nepalese buddhist bronzes, thankas, textiles, furniture, shrines, jades, jewelry, porcelain, coins, aboriginal, & old master paintings, the list goes on and on,…….and I have just scratched the surface,…… don’t they even have a fake Panchen Lama?……you can even go a lot further if you take into account the fake cd’s, dvd’s, designer label, electrical & sporting goods, pharmaceuticals & airport taxis.
Taiwan, the Republic of China, reckon that the mainland Chinese government, People’s Republic of China is a fake! Makes you wonder just what is genuine over there, maybe the Fake Wall of China is also dubious,….. a big cardboard cut-out!……and the terra cotta warriors in Xi’an are actually made out of paper-mache faked to look like polystyrene!…….it’s all too much!…….I need to lie down!
Just reminds me of another funny story………well!……..sort of,
A few years ago, my good friend Dennis and I, were apprehended at Beijing airport with some bronzes, the items were all confiscated on the spot as being prohibited exports and a receipt was issued. We complained that some of the items had red wax seals on them, meaning that they could be exported, and also pointed out to the customs officers, that others were not of Chinese origin, but in fact, Tibetan, to which they angrily replied, “no! no! no!…this not Tibetan!…..this Chinese!……this Ching dynasty! “ (anything Tibetan is classified as Chinese Ching!……imagine if they had invaded Australia!……..”no! no! no!…..this not Ayer’s Rock!……. this China Rock!….this big rock, Ching dynasty! )
A Chinese contact, who had a good friend working in customs, made some enquiries, and told me that all the seized items were handed over to the Beijing Bureau of Antiquities, who in turn sold them for a small profit to the Government Friendship Department Store, who in turn sold them on to western collectors for a very high price, complete with export certificates,…..true!……you can only laugh, and put it down to inexperience in a communist country, but there was a happy ending to the story…..this is what happened!……
At the x-ray machine, we had two suitcases that we were told to open, the first piece unwrapped was a 20 cm. seated bronze Kwan-Yin,…… this piece was placed between the two suitcases. There were about half a dozen custom officers around us, including one young female antiquities expert, after seeing this first bronze, they all got very excited, and went into a shark like feeding frenzy, clothing, newspaper wrappings, string, and plastic bags were thrown around, and eventually smothered the entire table. Dennis and I stood there, and calmly watched, as they freely helped themselves, laughing, as each one made a new discovery. Incidently, the Chinese rarely smile, as it temporarily blinds them!…..Dennis gently tapped his foot against mine, and I carefully nodded in acknowledgment.
After everything was confiscated, one customs officer asked us if we had anything else to declare, we just stared, and replied, telling him that he already had everything!….. then, with an arrogant wave of his arms, he told us to clean up the mess. I said “not a problem!” and gathered up one huge scoop of newspaper, and placed it into one of the suitcases, Dennis was busy picking up all the clothing and filling up the other. After we left the customs counter, and headed towards the departure gate, we both looked at each other and grinned, unbeknown to all the customs officers, was that inside that first scoop of newspaper, was the seated bronze Kwan-Yin!….it was a small victory……but it made us feel a lot better, that incident though, had such a profound and traumatic effect on us, that even to this day……we cannot eat in a Chinese restaurant!…….
p.s. we were told that we could come over to Beijing, go to court, and fight for ownership of the bronzes, but if we lost, the penalties could be quite severe, I told them that they could stick the bronzes up where the sun never shines!
We boarded a Thai Airways flight back to Bangkok, (we only fly Thai around asia) after the plane had reached it’s correct altitude, and seatbelt signs were off, one of the cabin crew who saw what happened at the x-ray, came up and placed two bottles of wine on our trays along with two glasses. We have never forgotten this kind gesture, and to this day, still dearly love Thai Airways,…..and eating in Thai restaurants!….. as a matter of fact, if there are any Thai Airways executives out there reading this,….. you can advertise on my website for free!
My family think that I am strange, but one my favourite television shows is Australian Border Security, I lean forward on my chair, and carefully scrutinize every new airport arrival like a hawk. I shout out to the Australian customs officers….(whom I have gotten to know quite intimately whilst watching the show)…… “that one! Craig!……look at his body language!……yeah! yeah!……I know that he is 90 years old, and all bent over, but that’s because he has something strapped to his chest!…….either that or his tie is caught up in his zipper!…….. or maybe his braces are just too tight!……o.k. let him go!…….what about that one then!….check out that one!……he has narrow eyes!……don’t forget to look inside his luggage!,……the matching set of used cardboard boxes with green plastic string!…….when a packet of withered wontons are discovered,…..I jump for joy!…….oh! that sweet & sour taste of success……..I say to myself,……sorry china!……..this is it!……..your Peking luck has run out!…….now it’s my turn to laugh!……..it’s payback time!