Detecting Fake Chinese Porcelain & Ceramics

I am always a fan of people who dig into a subject, taking the time to take photos, make illustrations and simply dig in to the nitty-gritty details. People often forget that it takes time to take the time to share their own thoughts and insights on topics they are passionate about. So I was excited when “JP” at earlyming.com was kind enough to allow me to share his writings (below)  on collecting antique Chinese porcelain.

It’s been some time now since I’ve made any additions to my collection. There are several reasons. The first being that authentic Ming and Qing porcelains of value are quite rare and difficult to find. The second reason is that the online supply of such is totally out of control. I am speaking mainly of e`Bay. I like e`Bay, and in the early days (1998) there was an occasional bargain to be found.

Comparing the early trading days of 1998 to the present, I see many changes. Back in 1998 you could search for the exact phrase “Ming Dynasty” and come up with about 15 or 20 items. Of those, possibly one or two might be authentic. Statements of authenticity were carefully phrased with sellers wanting to build a good reputation. The e`Bay picture for Chinese porcelain quickly started to change.

Doing that same search on e`Bay  today now returns about 300 items. Most are guaranteed to be authentic Ming Dynasty. The sellers are now international, many from China. The Chinese authorities would not allow national treasures that belong in their museums to be sold for pennies to outsiders. The Chinese are not foolish. Of the many wise sayings Confucius came up with, he’d have smiled at the famous P.T. Barnum saying that there is a customer born every minute. Time of course has replaced the quoted word customer with the word sucker.  I bowed out of e`Bay’s Chinese porcelain trading years ago and have only recently returned with a renewed interest. I’m working on the detection of  fakes.

Early in 1999 I reported a certain seller, user  thesaurusfinearts, to e`Bay as being very dishonest in their claims, thinking they would look into the matter. Nothing happened.   They instead allowed them to continue trading for another 4 years. In 2003 I got the following message when checking the username:

This seller is not currently offering any items for sale

Hmmm… I wonder why. Here’s why.

The US Government finally stepped in and closed down the dealer, Thesaurus Fine Arts of Seattle. Their claims of guaranteed thermoluminescence testing were finally challenged by an investigative reporter. Oxford’s Authentication Laboratory of England and Daybreak Archaeometric Laboratory of the US, both world leaders in the field, verified the fraudulent test results. Charges of fraud have been filed causing Thesaurus Fine Arts of Seattle to close down their operation. Click here to view that article.

In the Reference section of this site, under the heading of Buyer Beware, I point out one of the tactics to look out for in online auctions, the private auction. This particular seller quickly converted to the private auction early on. At one point I tallied up the asking price of the 50 some items they were offering that week alone. It came to $250,000.00. So why did e`Bay allow trading to continue for so many years in opposition of the many complaints I know they received?

Though the sales were few and far between, they must have received a nice commission on some of the 162 transactions listed, 88 from unique users.

I still like e`Bay, but only hope that they will now establish guidelines to protect the buyers instead of ignoring complaints, and turning a blind eye until the US Government has to step in.

Continuing on now with the detection of fakes,  I’ve chosen these particular pieces as they have the appearance of genuine Ming blue and white.  In some cases they almost mirror what you would see in a Christies or Sotheby’s catalogue.

Because of the explosion of supposedly authentic Ming and Qing Dynasty porcelain now available on e`Bay, I decided to do some purchasing to put together a page devoted to help identify fakes. I was looking for good quality fakes. What I got was bad quality fakes. Even though they were guaranteed authentic Ming Dynasty, I couldn’t complain since I knew they were fakes when I bought them. One however was so bad that I immediately demanded a refund and was granted one with no questions asked. My total expenditure for these items was about 100 dollars, but it might save someone thousands of dollars. I won’t disclose the sellers, as they are still trading on e`Bay under many different names.  I will add however, if you’re not careful on e`Bay when buying China, you can get Shanghaied in a New York minute..

This first item was sold several years back as coming from a sunken ship off the Chinese mainland. It shows the mark Chenghua which is very rare. I’ve only seen (held) two or three that are authentic. The images on the auction page were carefully chosen in the fact that they hid the important signs of it being fake. It’s my belief that the cup did indeed come from a shipwreck and was quite possibly Chenghua. It displayed many of the properties such as very thin potting, a delicate (intricate) play scene, and an under-glaze blue of the native Chinese variety that is characteristic of the reign. The glaze itself was almost non-existent, giving it a more flat or matte finish. This possibly from 500 years of being submerged. The reign mark however is new, added recently. Close examination shows it with a deeper cobalt blue and covered with glaze. The actual shipwreck is on record, documented as salvaged by Captain Hatcher who has made many discoveries of shipwrecks throughout the world. Someone obtained this item, faked the mark, and ruined the treasure.  It did have a numbered Hatcher sticker applied.

It’s a soft glaze, since they probably didn’t have the kiln, or the knowledge to refire the entire piece.  A poor quality attempt to deceive.

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This next item, recently purchased, is an amateurish attempt to create a Xuande stem cup. I once had such a cup about twice this size, only it was late Ming, with the mark being apocryphal. I sold it under that condition for about what I paid for it, continuing my search for the authentic. The cup shown here however, is a very poor attempt to duplicate a Xuande stem cup. Symmetrically it’s perfect, meaning it’s tooled or machined. A very thick potting and the under glaze cobalt has run giving it a blurry appearance. The reign mark is supposed to be Xuande, but it too has blurred making it almost un-decipherable. The auction pictures were small, without showing any macro. Just enough to fool the buyer into thinking the image itself was out of focus, but enough detail to see it’s a Xuande mark. Glaze is lustrous with zero imperfections or wear showing. A piece like this would have been immediately discarded (destroyed) if from the period.

stem cup stem cup

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This next item is from the same seller and also supposedly Xuande. Again, symmetrically perfect, same characteristics as the previous fake, only the decoration is a little better. Not blurry and it does have the correct color for the rich Mohammedan blue of genuine Xuande.  This classic design is seen on many early Ming porcelains.

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Next is a very easily recognizable fake just from the mark. The strokes are way too difficult, not light and flowing. Instead they are thick and heavy, almost a heaped and piled effect. Sometimes this effect is seen on the decoration of genuine pieces, never on the mark. It shows repeated (retraced)  strokes on the characters. Though the bowl itself is not symmetrical, it was created from a modern machined bowl, just tooled to modify its shape to be slightly out of round. Both the decoration and the reign mark were created by the same hand, displaying the same characteristic. Rarely did the hand that created the decoration also do the mark. The only thing right about the bowl is the deep rich Mohammedan blue of the under-glaze cobalt.

fake reign mark

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This next reign mark is an excellent example of a mark made to deceive by someone with little or no knowledge of Chinese calligraphy. I did not purchase this piece, only saved the image for the example.

fake reign mark

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This next item is one to pay close attention to. This came from a second hand furniture store. A Westerner with a good knowledge of Chinese calligraphy might be quick to point out that it’s a fake since the mark (temple mark in this case) has a mistake, several actually. One of the characters seems backwards and another appears incomplete. Delving a bit deeper into Chinese calligraphy, into the origin and etymology of the characters, shows the characters are indeed correct. I’ve come across about 7 or 8 marks with this exact same characteristic, several in museums. The explanation goes into a bit of detail which includes the connection between calligraphy and seal marks.

Click Here to view that information.

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This bowl turns out to be of Imperial quality and was probably a gift made personal by the mark being placed by the presenter. An old hand in this case. At first glance with some knowledge, it’s a fake, and many an expert might pronounce it a fake. However, an in-depth detailed study taking in the quality, characteristic, and specifically the mark, say it’s priceless.

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.I recently had the opportunity of examining 8 pieces of supposedly authentic Ming dynasty porcelain from a village near Shanghai, China. All but one were fake.  I’ve chosen one of those pieces to show you since I’ve started to see several of these same pieces now appear on e`Bay.

Here is one piece for example. It’s actually an attempt to copy the early Ming, or possibly late Yuan style.

fake porcelain but looks real

The image below shows what a quick cleaning revealed (or exposed).  The dark color looks authentic, and some genuine early Ming pieces have this property.  On the authentic it can also be cleaned up (lightened) to some extent. But on this particular piece it was clearly done to deceive.  If the piece were as old as the unglazed underbase discoloration suggests, the overall surface of the glazed areas would also have signs of 600 years of wear in the way of small scratches, nicks, and cracks.

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porcelain rim
The cleaning was done with a stiff bristle toothbrush using soap and warm water. It took very little effort. Rarely will a piece clean up this easily. It is possible on some genuine pieces, but examination of the other properties show the discoloration was clearly done with intent to suggest 600 years of wear.

This next image shows what appears to be 600 years of wear to the footrim. It looks real, but is  indeed faked. It’s hard to believe the image below is the same image, only cleaned up. It has the right color, the right design, even the right feel. It’s looking closer with a magnifier that tells the true story.
porcelain rim

Not just in the lack of discoloration, but how the smooth, sharp lines show no wear at all.  This would not be a characteristic of a genuine piece having the discoloration and wear as suggested by the image.

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porcelain rim
Close examination under a 30 power microscope reveals straight lines with no visible wear other than from normal manufacture. Not even a good fake. The image  below is an example of what the entire glazed surface area looks like, completely new. Not a single scratch or sign of wear, even to the rim where it would be most expected.
The entire glazed surface is smooth and uniform.  Not a single scratch over the entire surface. The experienced forgers will at least attempt to create the look of normal wear, but it’s almost impossible.

This is where the use of a fairly powerful microscope comes in handy.

bad glaze

Last but not least is the underbase.  Even when the fake discoloration was removed, the color and texture revealed beneath are not that far off from the authentic. The color and texture on this piece were created with a slight glaze. It’s easier to obtain the correct coloring with an additive than hoping the kiln will produce it naturally.

Regarding the above piece as well as the other  pieces accompanying it, I was doubtful that the source  would readily admit to their being new. He at first vehemently denied the accusation. But after being confronted with the details challenging their authenticity, he finally admitted that they were indeed modern reproductions. This, after first blaming the source on a villager his father obtained them from. I now know the true story. The one piece I did not challenge was from another source and very authentic. I believe he himself thought it a fake.

I hope the above information is helpful. Thank you for viewing the page, and always remember what P.T. Barnum said.

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11 Comment

  1. Richard says:

    It seems that detecting fakes in antiques is becoming more difficult all the time. We need to be careful that fakes don’t destroy the antiques industry as a whole.

  2. Justin Liu says:

    Is it just me or has there been a upsurge in the popularity of Chinese art and antiques in general of late?

  3. Roger says:

    huge upsurge. A lot of Chinese buyers paying record prices these days.

  4. Roger says:

    Agreed. Its getting hard for even the experts these days…

  5. Using imperfections from private kilns and corrosions of porcelains as proof to detect fakes are childish and ir-rational to say the least…(NOTE comment edited for content)

  6. Roger says:

    Feel free to provide alternative methods of authentication, or to dispute these methods with constructive comments. As long as comments are cordial and provide good excellent academic/practical advice or alternative viewpoints they are more then welcome here.

  7. Eugenia Camara says:

    I have been collecting some chinese pottery which I purchased from India. can anyone guide me how I can have these looked at by a specialist. I believe some of these are genuine though a few piecies I purchsed last holiday I believe were fakes imported from china as I found bits of newspaper packing on the inside.

  8. Roger says:

    There is a good forum for pottery on the asianart.com board about pottery. This might be a good place to start. You could also try gothborg as well, another good site.

  9. poh says:

    i have a antique bowl but not sure is authentic or non-authentic. where can i find the answer?

  10. carolann sherwood says:

    Hi:
    At an Estate Sale,…. I recently purchased a blue & white Chinese Porcelain-covered jar with two Dragons on it,… they are chasing a flaming pearl. In Excellent condition. There is a BLUE SEAL- Handpainted on the bottom of the jar in the same style as the paintings on the jar. I love this piece and am trying to find out more about it. I would like to find someone in my area of the country (who is an expert on such matters of old chinese porcelain) … I would like to can take it to someone for identication and evaluation for insurance. The local antiques dealers here do not seem to know much. I live near Sonoma, CA. Thank You,…Carolann

  11. Amber says:

    Hello, thanks for the time and info on this article. I have a very interesting piece I would love for you or anyone who is qualified to have a look at it. I would appreciate any help. Thanks in advance

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