Pablo Picasso once proclaimed, “We all know that art is not truth.”
And last week, a group of former art students suggested as much once again, after reporting that an oil painting sold at auction in Beijing last year as an original Xu Beihong piece was painted by one of them, and not by the late artist.
The painting in question, which depicts a naked woman thought to be Xu Beihong’s wife, went under the hammer last spring at Beijing Jiuge Auctions and attracted a winning bid of Rmb72.8 million ($11.4 million). Xu (1895-1953) was famed for his Chinese ink paintings of horses.
But according to an open letter signed by 10 former students from the Central Academy of Fine Arts’ oil painting department, the work was actually produced during one of their class exercises – 30 years after the master’s death. Wang Yanqing, one of the signatories, told the South China Morning Post that it was impossible that Xu could have painted something in a style that was so similar to their class exercise.
“Any oil painting graduate from the Central Academy of Fine Arts is capable of identifying the painting as a class exercise,” says Wang. “Xu hasn’t painted anything similar. We issued the open letter because there were so many compliments online saying how rare the painting is and how high its artistic value is. It was having a social impact and these comments may trick future buyers.”
“It can’t even be called a fake piece, as it is a totally unrelated painting,” Chen Danqing, a famous artist and critic, dismissively said on China National Radio.
The incident highlights the counterfeiting problem facing China’s auction industry. Industry insiders say as much as 90% of the value of art currently for sale in China risks being a bogus piece.
“You find copying everywhere that people collect art, but, when it comes to art fraud, China is probably the world capital,” says one Beijing art consultant.
A few weeks ago there was more news about forgery, although this time the headlines focused less on the art world than the banking system. Xie Genrong, who used to be one of China’s wealthiest men, was discovered to have secured a Rmb7 billion bank loan by offering two antique jade suits as collateral.
Only they weren’t that rare: they were fakes. Xie hired Niu Fuzhong, a relic expert, to reproduce the jade clothing in 2002. “Xie gave me the pieces of jade and I made them into two whole jade suits,” Niu told Beijing News. “Neither of them was valuable.” Not according to the five appraisers used for the bank loan, who set the price of one suit at Rmb2.4 billion. Using their valuations, Xie hoodwinked two bankers at China Construction Bank.
After the news came to light, the blame game began. One of the five appraisers was Shi Shuqing, a renowned art historian who died in 2007, so the four others pointed the finger at him. Yang Boda, one of the other appraisers, said Shi didn’t even touch the jade clothes to determine their authenticity, appraising them only by walking around the glass-box exhibits. He told the Beijing Youth Daily Shi’s multi-billion evaluation might have been a “casual guess”. Was a conflict of interest responsible? Though antique appraisers deny it, industry insiders say it is an open secret that up to 5% of the appraisal price is usually on offer as a commission.
Others say auctioneers are to blame too. Chinese law absolves auctioneers of responsibility if they warn before an auction that they can’t ensure the authenticity of the pieces on offer, says QQ.com.
“There are no unanimous legal procedures to follow in this industry for auction companies at all. They are just a commercial entity, similar to a shopping mall,” well-known art collector Ma Weidu told China National Radio. “So don’t expect that they can guarantee the authenticity of the products they put up for auction.”
As for the owner of the forged jade suits, he got a life sentence for fraud in 2009. But Xie was jailed not for art forgery but for creating hundreds of false housing sale contracts and fabricating financial reports. China Construction Bank executives will likely think twice before trusting ‘expert’ valuations or lending against an ‘antique’ again…
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