Authenticity and connoisseurship

Evidence and circumstances

Complete forgery is a matter of craft, and has often happened as a by-product of legitimate copying or reproduction. Even leading artists in the past were known to make forgeries as demonstrations of their skill (and sometimes with the ironic pleasure of duping careless experts.)

Chinese forgery often involves the manipulation of some part of an artwork, while other parts remain authentic. For instance, a real painting of the period may have added to it the ersatz signature of a famous artist/ connoisseur, or a replica of his seal (or even an unauthorised impression of a real one.) Or a real inscription unrelated to a handscroll or album (and salvaged from another source) may be added by a later mounting so as to give the impression that the piece has been attended to by a famous connoisseur. The inscription itself might be a complete forgery as well – or an authentic inscription might be added to a faked painting. Sometimes a simple reading of the inscription can clarify this – if its meaning seems only vaguely related to the painting then there may be a problem.

While not strictly forgery, works may also be excessively restored especially where ink and colour are added to make good damage or fading. An art in itself, restoration fails when it drifts too far from the original's integrity.

Ferreting out these various possibilities is a matter of experience, and is often disputed. One expert may observe that an inscription on silk seems not to have been very slightly distorted by remounting (while the rest of the painting has), and so is a later, spurious addition. But another expert may disagree, commenting on the mounter's skill instead.

A most entertaining book on the subject of mounting, forgery and connoisseurship was written by the Dutch diplomatic and sinologue Robert VAN GULIK. His book also provides a glimpse of the problems in the field more than half a century ago – and from this one can see the great progress that has be made in giving connoisseurship and authentification a sounder foundation.

Chinese Pictorial Art: As Viewed by the Connoisseur, 1958
Rome: Instituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente.
(Reprinted by SMC Publishing, Taipei)