Dozens of shops along Hong Kong’s Hollywood Road display antique porcelain, most of it dating to the Qianlong reign (1796) or before and, therefore, presumably illegally exported from the Mainland. But, despite the recent notoriety of smuggling via the Special Administrative Region, experts in the region say a far more worrying trend is an epidemic of high quality fakes.
Some in the Hong Kong trade say that as much as three-quarters of all ceramics that are fresh to the market are not what they purport to be. Polychrome enamelled wares of the Ming and Qing dynasties are the most likely to be fake.
The best of the fakes come from Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province, home to the former Imperial kilns. Most of its production is now automated, but the artisans are heir to a tradition that produced much of the work they are forging.
Visitors say they have seen painters working, apparently to order, from old Sotheby’s catalogues. The reported charge ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, far less than the hundreds of thousands or even millions some items fetch.
Jingdezhen’s forgers have a crucial advantage. Their raw material, nearby deposits of high-grade kaolin, is exactly the same one used for much of the best Song, Ming and Qing porcelain. Thermal luminescence tests are accurate but expensive—at least $500—and there is limited capacity (most trusted is Britain's Oxford Authentication, which has an office in Hong Kong). It is rumoured that even these tests have been circumvented by injections of radioactive material.
Jingdezhen first became prominent during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when it produced a still renowned qingbai (“blue-white”) monochrome white porcelain. Its heyday was probably the first 200 years of so of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when it turned out the Imperial “blue-on-white” ware that is today the best-known porcelain in the West.
Forgeries are not new. Nian Xiyao, who was made Jingdezhen’s director in 1726, faked Song Dynasty ceramics so accurately that many pieces, including a Ru ware jar in London’s Percival David Foundation, used to be accepted as genuine by the Palace Museum.