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Forgery in China: Jingdezhen and the false army

On 17 May the Gallery will host the UK launch of Noah Charney's fascinating new title on The Art of Forgery. Charney, art crime expert, will join us to present his explorations. Ahead of the event enjoy an extract from the book exploring the controversies surrounding China's famous Terracota Army:

'An army of thousands of life-size clay statues of soldiers lay sleeping where they were buried, in the tomb of the first Emperor of China, until they were accidentally discovered by a farmer digging a well in 1974. Since their discovery, the Terracotta Warriors have become China’s iconic artwork, drawing millions of tourists. For the first time, the Chinese government permitted some of the original Terracotta
Warriors to travel for exhibition in the West in 2007. Several prominent exhibitions were held, most notably in the British Museum in London. But with the fanfare came scandals.

On 25 November 2007, the Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg, Germany, launched a high-profile exhibition entitled ‘Power in Death’, featuring ten original Warriors, alongside nearly one-hundred modern copies. But on 19 December 2007, it was suddenly announced that the exhibition would close. The museum had been accused of exhibiting fake Terracotta Warriors, while claiming that they were 2,200 year-old originals. The accusations also implicated other German museums that had mounted exhibitions in Leipzig, Stuttgart, Erfurt and Nuremberg.

The Hamburg museum posted warnings that the objects may not be authentic, but on further investigation all of the warriors were found to be contemporary copies. With the public outraged, the media leapt on the case. Was this a conspiracy on the part of major national museums to trick the museum-goers into buying tickets to an exhibition of frauds? Or was China somehow to blame, having intentionally sent fake statues that managed to fool top museum experts?

The man who alerted the police to the Hamburg forgerie was German art dealer Roland Freyer, a founding member of the Leipzig-based Centre of Chinese Arts and Culture (ccac), which organizes international exhibitions of Terracotta Warriors, including the Hamburg show. Freyer had fallen out with the ccac, claiming that he personally had an exclusive contract to organize Terracotta Warrior exhibitions until 2012. Freyer claimed that the Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage, responsible for loaning Terracotta Warriors for foreign exhibition, knew nothing of the Hamburg exhibition and had sent no original statues to Germany. A representative of the Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage claimed to have only heard about the Hamburg exhibition from the television news.

It remains uncertain as to whether Chinese authorities had knowingly sent copies, if the ccac or the Shaanxi Provincial Bureau of Cultural Heritage was guilty of something sinister or if the whole thing was the result of a high-profile misunderstanding. But the probable source of most of the Terracotta Warrior copies is no mystery. It is the world’s leading producer of both antique and modern copy ceramics: the Chinese city of Jingdezhen.

In the twelfth century, the Song dynasty settled their imperial potters in Jingdezhen, a location with access to abundant natural clay. The city in China’s Jiangxi province turned the craft of porcelain into a world-renowned art form. At its peak in popularity, during the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, Jingdezhen porcelain was prized throughout the world. All of the Imperial Ware, made for the emperor’s court and therefore most valuable to collectors, was made in the factories of Jingdezhen. Some 60 percent of the city’s 1.4 million residents are employed in the ceramics industry. The city is home to 150 ceramics factories and 100 kilns, producing 10,000 pieces of ceramic per day, resulting in $100 million in annual legal sales. This is where Ai Weiwei’s 100 million ceramic sunflower seeds, which were scattered on the floor of the Turbine Hall in the Tate Modern in a 2010–2011 exhibition, were made. Since the Ming dynasty, Jingdezhen has been the leading producer of porcelain in the world.

But it is also a city dedicated to creating reproductions that look old. The concept of ‘fake’ is a Western import. In China, older art has always been considered more desirable, so great Chinese artists have always copied the work of their predecessors, trying to create work that would be perceived as older than they were. What was antique was of greatest value, so the legitimate art trade in China involved copying ancient works.

As you walk along the city streets in Jingdezhen, past alleyways lined with wooden buildings and factories spiked with chimneys erupting coal smoke, some 80 percent of all the goods that you see for sale are fake. That estimate comes from a consensus among gallery owners, dealers, locals and police – but some observers believe that up to 95 percent of goods are actually modern copies, manufactured locally using ancient methods.....'

Book your tickets for the launch of The Art of Forgery.