The majority of the Chinese paintings in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) in London are fake, according to the gallery's curators. This helps to explain why none of the V&A’s own pictures were displayed in the ambitious “Masterpieces of Chinese Painting 700-1900” exhibition, which closed last month. Of the 79 works in the show, only three came from collections in the UK, all from the British Museum.
The podcast accompanying the exhibition reveals how the V&A and other British museums ended up with so many fakes. Craig Clunas, a former curator at the V&A and now an Oxford University professor, says: “There is quite a large body of Chinese painting within the Victoria and Albert Museum, it’s just that most of it isn’t real… There are paintings in the V&A collection that the [museum’s] catalogue says are by major artists of the Ming and Qing period, there are famous examples that are just not genuine.”
A museum spokeswoman says that the collection owns 70 Ming and Qing dynasty paintings (1368-1911), excluding watercolours made in China for export to the West. Of these, 25 are now regarded as fakes, the status of 30 is uncertain and 15 are categorised as authentic. Only three works are on display in the V&A’s Tsui Gallery.
Clunas explains that most of the downgraded paintings were acquired in the period from the late 19th century to the Second World War, when “the general level of connoisseurship was not that high, and there were lots of optimistic attributions”. The V&A did not employ a curator who could read Chinese until the 1970s, essential for deciphering inscriptions and seals.
The museum’s fakes include a landscape entitled Visiting a Friend in the Mountains, bequeathed in 1953. It appears to be signed by Li Zhaodao, who worked around 713-41. This painting is now recognised as an outright fabrication, made more than 800 years later (about 1550-1600), probably in the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou. It bears a number of seals and inscriptions, apparently indicating an illustrious ownership. These were deemed important to Chinese collectors, and the forger seems to have put more effort into faking the seals and inscriptions than the painting itself.
Feeding Horses, which was on show at the museum until the 1970s, is apparently signed by the distinguished artist Ren Renfa (1255-1328). Bought with the George Eumorfopoulos collection in 1935, it actually dates from the 18th or 19th centuries and it may not even be Chinese, but instead painted in Japan.
It may come as a surprise that nearly half the V&A’s Chinese paintings are still deemed to be “questionable”. Zhang Hongxing, the museum’s current curator, says that now that the recent exhibition has closed, he is “planning to research the paintings with questionable attributions”. Most are not illustrated on the museum’s website, and a first stage would be to photograph them so outside scholars can comment on them.
Far beyond the V&A
The British Museum, with a collection of around 500 works, faces similar problems. The first group of Chinese paintings to enter its collection are 121 scrolls acquired from William Anderson in 1881. Of these, “many” are now deemed to have false attributions, according to the museum’s curator, Clarissa von Spee.
A 20th-century example is a landscape apparently signed by the Buddhist priest Juran (working 960-980). The scroll was bought in 1961 and is now believed to have been painted by the artist Zhang Daqian (1899-1983). He has also been named by some scholars as the maker of Riverbank, a controversial work at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art attributed to Dong Yuan (tenth century).
Clunas says that museums across the world, including those in China, are full of forgeries. This is a reflection of the fact that there has been “a highly developed art market in China for over 1,000 years”. Paintings were done in the style of earlier great artists, often with appropriate seals and inscriptions, in order to fool collectors.
Hongxing Zhang says that “faking has been a common phenomena in Chinese painting from the 16th century”. There is even a recognised Suzhou “school” of fakes from this period. Much more research needs to be done, and Zhang says that the study of fakes and copies in Chinese painting remains at “an earlier stage” than in European art.