Antiques Authentication Articles

Fortune or Folly? How to determine authentic Chinese furniture.

by Bobbie Leigh at

Purchasing authentic Chinese furniture is like driving at night without your lights on—proceed with extreme caution. Rookie collectors can easily be fooled since fakes abound. Before 1980, most of the Chinese furniture available was not made to deceive. Copies and fakes were often assembled from various aprons, legs and seat rails, among other pieces. Although they may have been old, they didn’t originally belong together. Incorporating old pieces into “new” furniture gradually gave way to reproductions—fakes whose goal was to pass as the real thing. To meet the growing demand for Chinese furniture, talented fabricators have been recently turning out fakes with the form, joinery and even patina of top-quality pieces, says Chinese furniture authority Lark E. Mason Jr.
With the exception of a handful of dealers and auction houses, Ming dynasty (1368–1644) furniture, made from tropical Asian hardwoods and characterized by elegant simplicity and restraint, is quite rare. Most galleries tend to have furniture from the middle to late Qing dynasty (1644–1911). Authentic pieces from the 18th and 19th centuries are often country or vernacular furniture from Chinese towns and villages. This regional furniture, as opposed to fine classical pieces, tends to be made from softer woods with freer, less controlled forms. However, prospective buyers of these later, more readily available pieces still must be skeptical. Clever fakes can be compared to a wonderful ersatz vintage watch that strikes the hour correctly, yet the minute hand is rarely accurate. Here are some general guidelines on how to select authentic Chinese furniture:


Fine or classic Chinese furniture was made principally from such dense, oily hardwoods as huanghuali and zitan, which are extremely resistant to water and insect damage. Conversely, most of the pieces available today are made from so-called softwoods. Determining wood type is complex, but you should at least check that the wood in the furniture you are considering is consistent to guard against reassembled parts, suggests Nancy Berliner, curator of Chinese art at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts. Seattle dealer John B. Fairman notes that many of today’s fakes are made from pine, “a real junkwood,” which will leak sap when rooms are heated. He emphasizes that you should check where the wood is worn and look for places that show constant use. If a piece shows wear over its entire surface, that could be a sign that it’s new. Someone who is trying to age a piece rarely thinks of habitual use and tends to age across the whole surface. For example, Fairman has an early 20th-century bench, priced around $6,000, that is worn on the right side of the seat. “That’s a sign of habitual use,” he says.


“Lacquer furniture offers a wonderful opportunity for a collector,” says Mason, who notes that many authentic pieces have a thick burgundy, almost translucent lacquer finish. “Black or red opaque are the types most often faked,” he adds, cautioning collectors to watch out for a heavy layer of lacquer that may hide new construction. “Someone trying to produce a fake will typically shortcut the lacquering process,” Mason notes. “Authentic pieces have several layers, clay mixed with grasses, covered with lacquer. The imitators won’t make it as thick, particularly for vernacular pieces they don’t value as highly,” he says.

“Climate changes are pretty harsh on lacquer, so older lacquer will have more crackles,” Berliner adds. However, keep in mind that a forger may use something as simple as a hairdryer to induce crackling. A general caveat is that if you see a bright-red lacquered rectangular country table or wedding cabinet, it was probably manufactured recently in southern China.

Nancy Murphy of WaterMoon Gallery in New York City has a black-lacquer, three-shelf display case priced at about $20,000. “I saw it in pieces on the floor of a reputable dealer’s shop in Beijing,” she says, adding that she could determine its age (probably early Qing) by examining the wood and the joinery that had been exposed when the piece was taken apart. Although the item was not in perfect condition, Murphy bought the display case because it wasn’t “buffed-up” and over-restored. “It’s open, airy and has all the qualities and proportions you would normally associate with classical Chinese furniture,” she says.


“If you see a metal nail or signs of glue, you may have a problem,” Berliner says, as even vernacular pieces are rarely glued. Chinese furniture uses a complex system of joinery where pieces fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. “Look for tight joinery, although some joints may have loosened over the years, and someone may have slipped in a wedge to tighten the fit,” she says. Many examples of classic Chinese furniture were constructed so that they could be easily dismantled, packed up and moved. An experienced consultant might ask a dealer to take furniture apart to make sure that the joints have not been made from fresh or new wood. On older pieces, you might even see a few Chinese characters, as furniture parts were often marked for easy reassembling. “Dismantling is one way to discover if a piece is fake or reworked,” Berliner notes.


Fakes are often unusual styles or shapes that have no place in the annals of Chinese furniture. Hong Kong dealer Andy Ng recalls seeing an “antique” low table that was, in fact, a “great invention”: A dealer had turned a small 
luohan (bed) upside down, changed the top, joined the legs with a stretcher, added a horizontal crosspiece and sold it as a table.

To verify authenticity in classic furniture, you need a connoisseur’s eye and experience—or at least a consultant like Mason or London-based Nicholas Grindley. In his London gallery, Grindley has a pair of 17th-century horseshoe armchairs, priced at about $75,000. Only an expert such as himself could verify that the chairs exhibit all of the proper, classic forms of horseshoe-back construction—rear and front posts that pass through the seat frame to form legs, for example. So don’t be persuaded by appearances. “A great deal of furniture has been altered to suit Western taste,” he warns.

Wu Tung, curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston once commissioned a Hong Kong carpenter to create a Ming chair copy so that visitors could sit in both a fake and an original. “You can often tell the difference,” he says. “The copies feel different because of the texture and surface of the wood, the proportions and form. Someone might spend large sums of money to create a fake and copy every detail, but a true connoisseur will still be able to tell the difference.”

In terms of tables, you have to be most careful about rectangular forms, which are in high demand and thus in ample supply as reproductions. Mason suggests that if you find a square table—a much less desirable form from a market standpoint—you have a better chance that it’s at least partially authentic. If the size of a table or cabinet seems just right for a modern living space, it most likely was reduced in size, according to Mason, since “long tables and tall cabinets were common in China’s lofty halls.”


“One of the great signs of fakes coming out of China is the ridiculous patination,” says Murphy, referring to highly polished new wood that has a glossy sheen but no natural luster. Depth of color makes the difference, notes New York City dealer Marcus Flacks. “When you look at an old wood like huanghuali, the surface patina is continually changing, whereas new wood, stripped and stained, is basically flat,” he says. “If the patina is too uniform, it is probably new.” To evaluate patina, look for strongly figured grain often colored by alternating streaks of light and dark. Flacks often seeks out burlwood furniture because it has an organic, undulating surface with many knots and an “unbelievable depth of color.” A 17th-century huanghuali and burlwood incense stand at his gallery is currently priced at about $75,000.


There’s no substitute for educating your eye, which means reading about classic 
as well as country Chinese furniture, visiting museum exhibitions and above all, developing a relationship with a reliable dealer or adviser. Buy the best you can afford and keep in mind that grime, wear and tear are evidence of the furniture’s valuable history. In the battle between restoration and “found” condition, most experts emphasize that signs of use trump zealous refinishing every time.


How To Tell Genuine Antique Chinese Furniture From Reproductions

Reprinted from :

Furniture of a classical Chinese style, whether a genuine antique or a reproduction, can give great pleasure to its owner, reflecting worldly tastes and reminding of world travels. However, with so many reproductions on the market, it's difficult to tell the real from the reproduced, and hence easy to get swindled. Therefore, here are a few things you can do to make sure you're getting the real McCoy, if that's what you're after.

Examine The Unfinished Areas:

Most Chinese wood furniture is coated with a finish. However, there are usually unfinished areas, such as drawer insides and furniture undersides. Examine these areas. As wood oxidizes when exposed to air, these unfinished areas should be darker in colour than the finished areas. The darker the unfinished wood (relative to the finished wood), the older the piece is.

If you find a piece where the unfinished areas are even lighter in colour than the finished areas, it should be a red flag that the piece is new. The wood has only recently been exposed to air, and the finished areas are darker only because they have absorbed some of the finish.

Check Condition of Nicks:

Most wood furniture will have a few nicks from being moved and used. Remember, old furniture should have old nicks. On truly old furniture, you should be able to find a few old nicks that after years of oxidation and friction look dark and smooth.

Examine Craftsmanship:

A very complicated design may point to a genuine antique, as reproduction factories usually do not invest the time and effort into creating complicated pieces. And as with unintentional nicks, any carved work should be smooth from years of use.

A "flex" slot at each joint may also point to a genuine antique. The more painstakingly built furniture of the past often has these slots to allow for the expansion and contraction of the wood.

Any traces of glue will be a red flag that a piece is a reproduction. Antique Chinese furniture won't use glue in the construction. Check for any traces, especially at the joints.

Spotting Fake Chinese Bronzes

by Amy Page 02/01/2002 at

LONDON — Fakes are an ever-increasing problem for collectors of ancient Chinese bronzes. According to Anna Bennett, head of the Center for the Scientific Investigation of Works of Art at London University, forgers have become very sophisticated in producing credible bronze copies made in the Shang, Warring States, Han and T’ang periods. 
One way to determine a bronze’s authenticity is to look at the metal’s oxidation, which occurs over a long period of time and is not easy to simulate artificially. “Until a few years ago metal analysis was pretty clear-cut because a piece either had corrosion or it didn’t,” Bennett explains. “But, in the last three years in China, they have been using a low electrical current to simulate corrosion not associated with a chemical attack. So we were all fooled for a while.” Bennett says she was “fairly quick” to catch on and has since alerted experts at major institutions, including Tom Chase, a fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Institution, Peter Meyers at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Dick Stone at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. “We now see a sort of fingerprint on this corrosion and, when you know what to look for, you can pinpoint it.”

Although museums have been warned, the discovery has not been widely publicized because they do not want forgers to abandon this technique for a more sophisticated one. “It is to our advantage at the moment,” Bennett says.

Just how widespread are fake bronzes? Bennett says the pieces she sees have been edited by the time she examines them, but approximately 50 percent are fake. Therefore, she estimates, roughly 90 percent of the bronzes on the market are not what they are cracked up to be. For more information, e-mail Bennett at


New Chinese 'Antiques' Draw Plenty of Interest

Reprinted from :

Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

ZHONGSHAN, CHINA (Nov. 4, 2002) -- Standing amid piles of dirt-encrusted Chinese furniture outside their shop, Li Chan and Li Pang are debating just how honest they should be about the age of some ancient-looking wooden doors.

The paint on the 6-foot doors is peeling and the iron fixtures are corroded, but they have the aged finish that many antique hunters’ love. They were salvaged from old buildings in Northern China, says Li Chan. And the price is good, only $194.

Her partner Li Pang interrupts. "Don't tell them they are antiques," he says. "Say they are 20 or 30 years old."

Ms. Li demurs. "No, tell them they're older."

But Mr. Li's conscience is pricking him. The doors aren't antique at all, he admits. He explains that he scavenges old pine lumber from around China, fashions the wood into doors outside his shop and leaves them out to weather the timber and metalwork. Then comes a layer of paint, and "before the paint is dry we add mud," he says. "When we remove the mud, the paint peels." The goal is to make the product look, at the very least, 100 years old. Sometimes, the finished products look like they were built to hold back Mongol invaders.

Throughout southern China, thousands of factories and countless individuals are churning out brand-new furniture and accessories that will be passed off as antiques and later turn up with exorbitant price tags in antique shops from New York to Hong Kong. The fakery is fueled by the booming international market for antique Chinese furniture, and by the fact that China is running out of genuinely old pieces.

The Gu He complex here in Zhongshan, which houses the Lis' shop, is the nation's largest. Stalls and workshops sprawl from either side of a dusty road, a jumble of furniture and baubles spilling out into the fields: red lacquer wedding cabinets, carved courtyard screens, rectangular stools, Tang Dynasty terra-cotta horses and Tibetan chests.

A display in the Gu He market in Zhongshan, China. The provenance of these products isn't known, but Gu He craftsmen produce a substantial amount of fake antiques.

Some of the offerings are the real thing, some are reproductions billed as such, but most are fakes with fabricated histories. Here, an undiscerning shopper scooping up a narrow altar table labelled "late Qing Dynasty elm wood," would be shocked to learn how hard craftsmen have laboured to make it look old.

The southern province of Guangdong is the heartland of this growing industry. The area has a long history as an authentic antiques centre, but "10 years ago, many people came from the north and set up temporary shacks on this vacant land to sell furniture," says Jin Xiang Yu, the entrepreneur behind Gu He. He bought the land in 1998 and started charging rent to the stallholders. Other immigrants moved in. "Then naturally, the place became a furniture market," Mr. Jin says.

Last year, Guangdong exported $2 billion of wooden furniture, half of it going to the U.S. Data on how much of that is marketed as antique aren't available, but dealers can charge far more for items that are believed to be old.

Heeding the call of this massive market, Chinese craftsmen are working harder and harder to fashion cheap new furniture into expensive antique items.

"It takes a long time to learn the tricks," says Deng Gao Fa, as he smooths clay on a table. His upstairs workshop is crammed with plastic buckets filled with dark chemicals and bags of silk yarn used to rub solvents into a stack of new wooden tables. Mr. Deng says the chemicals make the new wood more stable and less likely to crack, but he admits that the ingredients also serve to make the new tables look old enough that a dealer can present them as antiques. "We can even make it look older depending on what the clients want," says Mr. Deng, before family members working alongside him tell him to hush up.

All that hard work makes it difficult even for professionals to spot the fakes. "In the beginning ... they didn't have the chemicals and knowledge to make good fakes," says New York dealer William Lipton, who has been dealing in Chinese antique furniture since the late 1970s. "Now they have more savvy. When I go to China the fakes are so good, I tell them that I'm going back to my warehouse and I'm going to dissemble the piece -- if it's not right I'm going to bring it back. It's the only way I can tell."

Taipei dealer John Ang, who conducts seminars twice a year on Chinese furniture, attributes' the mainland craftsmen's expertise to the hundreds of pieces that go through their workshops every year. "They know exactly how to reproduce the joints and age the patina," he says.

Still, to the practiced eye, there are good fakes and bad fakes. Strolling through Gu He, Hong Kong antiques dealer Oi Ling Chiang picks out dozens of items that have been manufactured to look old. She determines immediately that doors from the Lis' shop are fake. Bending down to examine the smooth timber at the bottom of the doors, she sees the circular imprint of an electric saw. If the door were original, there would be wear and tear evident, and no signs of modern tools.

Ms. Chiang has visited many large antique and reproduction factories in Guangdong, but this market upsets her. Much of it is junk, she says. "I hate this market -- it comes across that Chinese things are trashy, cheap rubbish."

At the Wan Feng Antiques shop, Ms. Chiang studies a Tibetan drum, which might once have been used by monks during religious ceremonies. The wood and leather instrument has a painted red and green dragon around its circumference. Sales assistant Cheng Yu Ping tries to convince Ms. Chiang that it's old. But Ms. Chiang isn't fooled. The painting is too colourful and the strong smell of shellac suggests that it was recently applied.

To demonstrate her honesty, Ms. Cheng points to floral-patterned Tibetan cabinets in another corner and declares that they are new.

"That's what kills me, because she says some are old and some are new, so you believe her," says Ms. Chiang.

The director of the Zhongshan Furniture Trade Association, a Mr. Deng (he wouldn't reveal his first name), isn't bothered by the deceptions. He believes the onus is on the buyer.

"The stores in the [Gu He] market in general sell genuine antique furniture," he says. "But it's up to the customers to bring along an expert to help them verify the antiquity of the piece. For tourists, they should not expect the furniture to be 100% guaranteed."


Test sorts fakes from priceless porcelains
26 September 2005 
From New Scientist Print Edition.

Test sorts fakes from priceless porcelains
26 September 2005 
From New Scientist Print Edition. Subscribe and get 4 free issues. 
The days of antiques collectors being fooled by fake Chinese vases may be numbered.

Researchers at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, can now pinpoint the geographical region, sometimes even the precise kiln, that a porcelain artefact came from by analysing its geochemical profile and comparing it against a database of authentic porcelains.

"When it comes to forgeries, we can identify them easily," says Jian-xin Zhao, who is leading the work.

His team has collected broken fragments of authentic antique porcelain from across China and drilled out tiny samples from museum pieces in order to analyse them and create the database.

Tang dynasty
These include porcelain from kilns in operation during the famous porcelain production period of the Tang dynasty, from AD 618 to 907, and also from the Ming dynasty, from AD 1368 to 1644 (Journal of Archaeological Science, DOI: 10.1016/j.jasa.2005.06.007).

To analyse a sample, the concentration of 40 elements in the clay is mapped and the ratio of different isotopes of a number of these elements is measured, including strontium and lead. The result is a distinctive profile that is impossible to copy, says Zhao.

A Yuan dynasty jar sold in London for £15.68 million in July. "With such huge profits, people find all sorts of ways to make fakes," says Zhao.