Letters from China: One, Who is going to appraise the appraiser?

Contestants on a popular tv show in China decide to smashing the item they guess is the fake

Just as average Chinese collectors fight hard to JIAN LOU (or find treasures in bargain price) in an antiques market diluted with forgery, they may also find that the expert opinions are getting worse.

In Beijing alone, there are more than one hundred appraisal centers, not to mention the whole country. What are their qualifications? Who is going to appraise them? After all, who are they?

Certificate Expert

In one of the popular reality show TV programs, a collector bought a fake antique jade for 30 RMB ( approximately 5 dollars) from a local flea market and asked an appraiser’s opinion. The expert concluded it was authentic and estimated it at $50,000, and issued a certificate of authenticity– with $200 processing fee. The expert has been in the appraisal business for more than 10 years and had not the TV show aired to the public, would have been busy issuing more certificates.

Pan Jian Yuan, the famed antiques district in Beijing has developed its own supply chain system from production, shipping to sales, and also authentication. An auction house manager, who refused to disclose his name, said that dealers here do not need any qualifications except a resale certificate. Most of the dealers are more than willing to issue certificates of anthenticity with the items sold to the customers. Yet if one brings the same item to different appraisers, they are more likely to give different opinions. Being different means standing out in the trade, and perhaps it is also the buyer’s interest to have some “alternative” opinions from other experts.

Study group experts

Not surprisingly, there are lots of workshops and short courses to train average Joes’s (or Ming’s in this case) discerning eyes. In July 2003, China issued qualifications for antiques appraiser licenses in an effort to standardize the trade. However, the huge demand in appraisal business and the high mark of the qualification made it unnecessary and cumbersome for those who wanted to become expert in one night. Today, only one hundred or so agents have obtained the license through rigorous training. In contrast, “hobby study groups”or “appraisal workshops” in major metro areas have generated many “experts.”

The value of “No”

Yanjun Li, the vice president of Chinese art appraisal association, once commented – Some established appraisers can make some quick cash (more than 10 grand) at each visit. All clients, of course, hope their collections are  authentic. But if I see something fake, I cannot say it’s authentic. Since then I have insulted a lot of people, you can call me an expert in upsetting collectors, I guess. Sadly if you say the truth, you break the convention. When one’s words become countable, such appraisers are face a conundrum between gaining money, keeping a friendship, and trading ethics.

The Arrival of High Tech

Appraiser training in the past was done through apprenticeship. In the 80’s, when there was hardly any governmental regulation and peasants brought unearthed items to the cities’ Antiques Bureau for quick cash. They soon learned to make forgeries in rudimental ways such as corroding / oxidizing the surface. Appraisers at that time had a vast array of real and fake to practices with and have gained some insights since then. Yet as this trade knowledge became available in public and technology improved in the last 10 years, the old hard rules can now seldom be relied upon, nor can a normal appraiser’s eyes and hands.

Between 1993 and 1994, the Forbbiden City Museum and Chinese History Museum bought some terracotta solders from North Wei period, which subsequently created a collecting mania for such objects. Interestingly, the supply seemed always to be able to meet the ever increasing demand. Eventually the police found out the majority of them were made in a village of Henan Province. But it confirmed one golden rule in Chinese antiques authentication: Once an authentication method is published, it is doomed to fail.

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