China / Cover Story

Antique buyers fall for old tricks

By Zhang Yuchen (China Daily) Updated: 2011-05-27 07:55

Lack of qualified appraisers makes collection a risky business, reports Zhang Yuchen in Beijing.

A local woman with a porcelain pot approached Ding Yuanhai in Harbin. She told Ding, director of the Cultural Heritage Forensic Evaluation Institute of Heilongjiang Museum, that her antique had been appraised at 100,000 yuan ($15,400). And she had a document to prove it, provided and signed by an expert she had found through connections in Beijing.

Antique buyers fall for old tricks

A collector examines a new find at an antiques market in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, in October 2009. Zhong Shan / for China Daily

Ding and his colleagues looked over the item and broke the news: The pot was counterfeit. The woman had no chance of recovering the 20,000 yuan appraisal fee she paid to the "expert" in the capital.

"She fell onto the chair and sat there, fixed, when she heard the 'antique' was a fake," Ding said. "I felt so sorry..."

More than 1 million items have been submitted to Ding and his colleagues for review at the institute over the last two years. The institute is the only organization in the province entitled to conduct forensic appraisals, which are used for court proceedings.

"We could only guarantee 61 items of those submitted and we handed out credentials to the owners," Ding said.

China's legitimate art and relics market is thriving. Last year it overtook the United Kingdom's to become the second largest market worldwide, according to an annual report by the European Fine Arts Foundation. Its value doubled from 2009, reaching 9.8 billion euros (91.2 billion yuan, $14 billion) and a 23 percent global share, the foundation said.

The counterfeit market is booming, too. According to a recent report from Beijing Business Today, about 300,000 people work in China's fake antiques market, which generated more than 10 billion yuan in 2009 and 2010.

Common people still dream of making a fortune by buying and selling true relics, but there is little help available to guide and protect them.

Who is qualified?

Antique buyers fall for old tricks

An archaeology expert offers free appraisals for residents in Hefei, capital of Anhui province. The occasion was the city's third cultural heritage day in 2008. Ma Qibin / for China Daily

Investing in antiques, like investing in real estate, has swept the country in the past 10 years as a means of accumulating wealth. But it works only if the investment is well placed. That requires expert appraisal, which can be hard to find.

In China, the people who are consulted to appraise antiques generally fall into four groups: museum researchers who have been absorbed in their fields for decades, other employees of well-regarded museums, professors in archaeology academies and people who work in antique stores.

Song Zhaolin, a researcher at the National Museum of China, puts his faith only in the first group, his own. Through his experience in research, he values the years of familiarity with genuine collections.

A 70-year-old who researched and repaired relics for years at a different museum cautioned that working for a museum does not necessarily qualify people for appraisals. "They may brag they are working in a famous place, but their real jobs may only cover repairing the plumbing," said the man, who would not let his name be used.

Archaeology professors are well trained to recognize and safeguard ancient relics, but may not be familiar with the current market or setting monetary values.

China's Cultural Market Development Center used to provide consultations on antiques, but in April it canceled all appraisal services for individual collectors. It gave no explanation.

The China Association of Collectors connects people who share an interest in collecting, but it does not provide appraisal services to the public, an association officer told China Daily.

Local cultural departments make judgments about items in terms of how they can be shipped abroad, but that is only for customs purposes.

Some antique auction firms have their own appraisers or hire specialists they are familiar with to judge whether items are genuine. In that sense they are not independent appraisers, but the works they are valuing generally are intended for sale at auction. These specialists may or may not also evaluate items for individuals.

Yang Ziming, the principal appraiser at Ji Gu Relics Evaluation Center in the Liulichang Cultural Relics Street, charges 50 to 100 yuan for an oral evaluation, a lower rate than others posted at nearby shops. He said he can help a customer find appraisers with much more experience and fees to match, about 20,000 yuan.

Down the street, Wang Yunrong, an appraiser at Beijing Aoya Technological and Trade Co, told China Daily he can verify the genuineness of jade, Chinese water paintings, porcelains, coins and other items. So can the other two appraisers he works with, he said.

When asked about his qualifications, Wang said that he was called upon to confiscate antiques from the rich during a campaign before the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976).

In his shop, he said, "Every one of us has abundant knowledge about all fields."

Song, the National Museum researcher, views expertise differently. A true expert has general knowledge about many spheres of his field, he said, but specializes in just one or two.

"The number of real experts gets smaller nowadays as the old generation of appraisers pass away and the younger one has not yet grown up," Song said.

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