Here is a summary of years of hard learned experience.
FACT # 1 - ANTIQUES CANNOT BE LEGALLY EXPORTED FROM CHINA OR LEGALLY IMPORTED INTO THE USA
We're just going to say it - every single antique listed by a China/Tibet based dealer is a FAKE. No exceptions.
It is illegal for sellers based in the Peoples Republic of China, or Taiwan Republic of China, to export Chinese antiques out of their respective countries. These countries have enacted strict Cultural Preservation laws designed to keep their national heritage at home.
As of June 2009 in the Peoples Republic of China, exporting anything earlier than 1911 (the end of the Qing dynasty) is strictly forbidden. Also, President Bush signed an executive order just before he left office preventing the importation of Chinese antiques older than 250 years. In Taiwan, anything 100 years or older cannot be exported. In the Peoples Republic of China, the penalties for smuggling "Cultural Relics" are severe. Lengthy imprisonment, and sometimes even execution. The Chinese Government doesn't fool around. This is well documented on the internet.
Some common semi-antique items from the early 20th C can be legally exported from China, and bear a red wax inspection seal, a so called "jianding". You see these seals occasionally on items from western sellers. They're found on genuine antique items sold at official government "Friendship Stores". Tourists can also request inspection of items that they find locally, and if compliant, Chinese Customs will affix a seal to them. All the seal means is that the piece was inspected by some Chinese government official and was found to be compliant with the antiquities exportation laws - i.e. it won't be old, rare or valuable. It is possible to obtain a seal for a brand new fake. They don't authenticate the piece.
Hong Kong was the gateway to the west and served as an important trade center for Asian antiques for many years. When rule reverted to China in 1997 a "50 years of no interference" promise was given to the people of Hong Kong. That means that Hong Kong dealers CAN legally export real antiques, but most of them now deal heavily in fakes. Do business with HK dealers at your own risk. We won't.
Tibet is part of China, and the same rules apply there too.
FACT #2 - THERE IS A HUGE DEMAND FOR GENUINE ANTIQUES INSIDE CHINA.
The world's hottest market for real Chinese antiques is... China! China has many new auction houses that do a booming business selling genuine Chinese antiques to the nouveaux riche Chinese businessmen. It's a well known fact that world record auction prices for Chinese antiques are being set in China. American and European auction prices for equivalent articles are substantially lower than typical prices achieved in China. That's why Sotheby's and Christies are so hot to get a piece of the action, and have established HK showrooms. If a China based antique dealer acquires a valuable piece, he or she would sell it inside China, legally, for a lot of money. Why on earth would they want to sell it cheap on eBay, to a foreign buyer, and take the chance of imprisonment?
FACT #3 - MOST CHINESE ANTIQUES LISTED ON EBAY ARE MODERN FAKES.
The overwhelming majority, maybe 90% or more, of all Chinese "antique" items listed on eBay (regardless of the source) are not antique - they are modern reproductions. Or tacky fantasy creations.
Some reproductions are beautiful, and undoubtedly require skilled artistic abilities. But heads up - you are buying a worthless modern decorative piece. If you like the piece, that's great. If you keep it long enough it will be an antique some day!
FACT #4 - BEWARE OF IMPORTED FAKES FROM WESTERN DEALERS.
There are several large "Chinese Antique Dealers" out there who live in the USA, or Canada, or UK. They seem to have the same stuff as advertised by their mainland brothers, but they proudly display "USA DEALER", or "UK DEALER", or similar. This does not mean that these items are genuine. This means that these con artists import their modern junk, and sell it from a western country to an unsuspecting dupe who lives in a western country. Apparently, there is no shortage of dupes!
Some western scammers claim to have current antique sources inside remote villages in China. Then there's our personal favorite - their "family" fled China after WWII and brought large collections with them. Wow! They must have traveled with one hell of a lot of luggage! :)
Some western sellers appear from nowhere offering batches of 20-50 high end Chinese antique items from some bogus "estate" they are liquidating. Great pictures - all fakes. We call these "hit and run" dealers.
FACT #5 - MOST SCAMMERS HAVE GREAT FEEDBACK!
Good feedback ratings on these western con artists do not mean that they are selling real antiques The types of customers who buy junk from these scam artists are mostly low feedback novices. They are all too happy to leave excellent feedback for their "genuine Ming Dynasty jade dragon pendant", or whatever piece of junk they just blew $100 on. They wouldn't know a real antique piece from a fake - so how reliable is their feedback? There are many dealers out there who have thousands of sales and 99% positive feedback who have never sold a genuine piece their entire life.
What's one common tactic used by almost all these scammers? "USER ID KEPT PRIVATE". WATCH OUT! This is most often used not to protect a buyer's privacy, but to protect the scammer's sales. This is used so you can't look at the seller's negative feedback, look at an actual item and say "Hey, that buyer WAS right. This WAS a fake." There are several dozen dealers out there that if eBay rules allowed us, we'd simply post their IDs and tell you to avoid them like the plague. Unfortunately, we can't do that - you'll just have to figure out who these crooks are yourself.
FACT #6 - LOOK IN THE USA, CANADA, JAPAN & EUROPE FOR THE REAL PIECES.
There are not that many good, undiscovered antiques left floating around in China. Surprise. Strange but true. We hear that from our China based collector friends all the time. The good pieces have mostly been looted and taken out of China over the years (by a succession of foreign interventions and wars), voluntarily sold to westerners or Japanese collectors years ago, destroyed during the Cultural Revolution in the 1970's, put into public museums, or bought by wealthy dealers and/or private collectors living in China. If you want to find good Chinese antiques on eBay, do what the China based collectors do - look in the USA, Canada, Japan and Europe! If you find yourself bidding against a person living in China or Taiwan, bingo - you've probably found a real piece! But be forewarned, most of the China based collectors are actually dealers, and they have a lot of money. You might be in for a bit of a bidding war. Some of these dealers ALWAYS seem to win their auctions, so we suspect the market is so hot in China they know they can buy expensive and still sell pieces at a premium price.
Sort your listings by distance, and pay attention to those NOT in China. Then, look at the Chinese listings - this will show you what kind of fakes are currently hitting the market. Keep an eye out for these bogus items appearing from western sellers - they will show up sooner or later.
FACT #7 - YOU MUST KNOW WHAT YOU ARE LOOKING AT.
If you don't know what you are looking at, you will probably end up with a fake. Want to collect snuff bottles? Great. Buy a couple of books and study the subject. Then you will start to develop an eye for what is real and what isn't. Because something looks cool, that's no guarantee it's genuine. Read. Study. Learn. Browse the Asianart and Gotheborg boards. You will still make mistakes occasionally (we do), but less and less. When you do buy a fake, try to get your money back as quickly as you can. If you get stung, that's called your "tuition fees". You will pay some.
FACT #8 - MOST LEGITIMATE SELLERS DO NOT KNOW MUCH ABOUT GENUINE CHINESE ANTIQUES.
When it comes to Chinese antiques, most sellers know next to nothing about what they have. They are not experts in Asian arts. Don't take their age estimates, descriptions, stories about where the piece came from, etc. seriously. They're guessing. Educate yourself and trust your own opinion. BEWARE of listings with lengthy history lessons - virtually guaranteed to be bogus! Beware fuzzy photographs - ask the seller to email better ones. Occasionally you will find some sellers who know EXACTLY what they have. You will probably not get any "great deals" from these people, because they also know exactly what it is worth. But "great deal" is relative. It may seem expensive to you, but if it is truly valuable, it is probably selling for a price way less than Sotheby's or a major art dealer. Of course, ignorant or greedy sellers often price items way beyond what they are worth, so look out for these too. Interestingly, pieces which are grossly overpriced are usually described generically - like "old oriental vase". Sellers have no idea what they have, but darn it, it sure looks valuable to them - so they want a lot of money for it! We find the combination of ignorance and greed very entertaining.
FACT #9 - ITEM DESCRIPTIONS ARE PROBABLY INCORRECT.
If the item description says Qing, Ming, Song, Yuan, Tang etc. - it probably isn't! (But then again, we have seen some rare few pieces from all these periods selling on eBay, so you never know...) Same thing for TIBET, JADE, IVORY, SILVER, CINNABAR. Fake city - you better know your stuff. An eBay search on the two keywords "TIBET SILVER " brings up a staggering 110,000 listings - every single one is a fake. Try it yourself!
FACT #10 - BEWARE THE INTERNET-ONLY SCAMMERS.
Avoid buying "antiques" from any dealer that has a name that sounds like a Chinese restaurant! Basically, endless combinations of dragon, golden, lotus, Tibet, jade, lucky, etc. Also, any dealer with the word "museum" in its name is suspect. With very few exceptions, most of these dealers are internet only scam artists. Think about one thing - where can ANY dealer get real pieces to offer for sale? All legitimate dealers need a source for genuine antiques! Legitimate dealers find them in estate sales or they are a brick and mortar shop. In either case their supply is naturally limited. They won't have hundreds of pieces - just a couple here and there. Legitimate dealers can usually be identified by doing some internet sleuthing as they must have a life beyond eBay. Everyone else is just an internet only scammer.
A FEW THOUGHTS ABOUT SMUGGLING
Are some real antique pieces being smuggled out of China? Yes, undoubtedly. We've heard from some Jade collectors that sometimes villagers will rob graves, and, because their activities are illegal, they will secretly sell pieces to smugglers who get them out of the country clandestinely. We suspect that the majority of these looted pieces will end up in South East Asia in the hands of big money collectors and dealers - not the type of individuals who will post them cheaply on eBay. Even if smuggled pieces were being dumped on eBay, is this the kind of shady business you want to support?
Sad to say, there appear to be many western Jade collectors who are absolutely convinced that large quantities of authentic Hongshan Period (3,500-2,000 BCE) jades are making their way from China to eBay. They gobble up archaic looking jades from China based dealers in the vain hope that somehow, among all the fakes, they will find an authentic artifact. They purchase high precision electronic scales, hardness testing tools, and all sorts of equipment to assist in their authentication process. Then they post their results on internet forums and endlessly debate each other about tool marks, burial calcification patterns, etc. ad nauseum. Our opinion is that these well intentioned folks are simply wishful thinkers looking for a lottery win - but the game has already been fixed. They may be very knowledgeable about their subject matter (much more than we are - we know very little about Jade), but they seem to be totally oblivious to the legal and economic realities of the fake antiquities trade in China.
SOUTH-EAST ASIA - TREASURE TROVE OR SNAKE PIT?
Increasingly, sellers from Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines, etc. are showing up on eBay and listing large quantities of "valuable" Chinese artifacts - mostly porcelain. Real? Well, all these countries DO have large ethnic Chinese populations, and Chinese trade was conducted with them for many centuries. Well publicized ancient Chinese shipwrecks were discovered and harvested through out South East Asia, and many countries do not have restrictive antique export laws... So, theoretically, they can be legitimate sources for Chinese antiques.
Now for the bad news. Scammers in these countries are firing up their local kilns and manufacturing fake Chinese ceramics by the boatloads. Usually copies of valuable Song era pieces. Some popular internet Asian art forums are being used as test grounds for their forgeries. The scammers post their fakes, and solicit feedback from knowledgeable westerners - looking for ways to improve their wares.
As recovered shipwreck cargo has verified, most genuine items from South East Asia are likely to be common export tableware - so called "kitchen Ming" or "kitchen Qing". These were produced in huge quantities in south China's Fujian province, and exported extensively.
Whether you should consider a South East Asian dealer as a reliable source is entirely up to your comfort in authenticating the piece. In our opinion, the vast majority of these dealers are scammers, and we would not consider purchasing anything from these countries unless it was part of a well publicized and VERIFIABLE shipwreck recovery.
SO WHAT SORTS OF REAL CHINESE ANTIQUES CAN YOU FIND ON EBAY?
You will mostly find late 19th century to early 20th century export items. These can be recognized because they are generally marked with a CHINA country of origin marking. They are not very high quality or particularly valuable, but they are authentic and a great place to begin your collecting.
Then you will find some rare, but damaged pieces. These are often overpriced, so be careful. A little natural shelf wear is expected and in fact is a good indicator of authenticity, but significant damage or restoration really hammers the true value of the piece - so be careful you don't overvalue it in your mind. This damage devaluation depends a lot on the type of antique. Porcelain can loose up to 90% of it's value with simple chips or hairline cracks. Rare Ming cloisonne can tolerate a few minor chips without affecting value - same thing for lacquer and Canton Enamel. Each area of collection has it's own standards.
Occasionally some of the larger legitimate dealers will have significant numbers of good quality pieces from major estate sales or private collections. These used to be commonly auctioned on eBay Live Auctions. But as of Jan 1 2009, this venue was no longer active. In our opinion, the quantity of higher end antique Chinese pieces on eBay has dropped dramatically as sellers shifted to alternative live auction venues, and the percentage of fakes has increased.
HOW DO YOU AUTHENTICATE PIECES?
Once you have found something that looks interesting, the next step is to try to authenticate it.
Step #1 - Check out the dealer first! Click on view sellers other items. 248 listings of rare Chinese antiques? Forget it. They're all FAKES.
Next, check all negative feedback for the seller, specifically looking for complaints of fakes and forgeries. There are external websites that allow you to look at any seller's old and removed eBay feedback - find them through Google. Even a couple of suspicious negatives in a sea of positive reviews are big red flags. Not proof, but warnings to look carefully. Even positive feedback can contain hidden warnings - like "not as old as advertised", "different from photograph", "shipped from China" "honorable seller, quick refund" etc - these scream FAKE. If you are more familiar with certain types of antiques, say for instance cloisonne, then carefully look at any cloisonne pieces sold by this dealer. Do they look legitimate to you? If they don't, forget this dealer and move on. In our opinion, the dealers that sell fakes generally sell nothing but fakes - "one rotten apple spoils the barrel".
Step #2 - Compare to known good examples. The internet has many sources for helping you authenticate pieces. Start by looking at other eBay listings for similar items. Then look at eBay completed auctions and try to identify if the piece is a mass-produced copy. Do a Google image search describing the piece, and look at any museum examples that might pop up. Do a Google product search and find out what similar pieces are being sold by antique dealers, or importers of modern curios. Sign up for free accounts on Artfact.com and Sothebys.com, and search their completed auctions to find similar pieces. If you are going to do this often, sign up for an account on Gotheborg.com. Scan the Asianart.com forum for postings about similar objects. Try to acquire a library of good reference books and auction catalogs with lots of photos and descriptions. Some auction houses, like I.M. Chait, allow you to search their completed auction listings. Same thing for Aspire and Liveauctioneers.
Step#3 - Beware of the red flags! Look out for unusually heavy pieces, as this may mean molded resin. Look out for air bubbles (signs that a piece was molded) in pieces that are supposed to be carved. Look for tiny knife nicks on carved items - there should be some. Ask the seller for better photos of areas that are damaged, or should show signs of shelf wear - like foot rims and bases. Mint condition often means made yesterday! Be suspicious of heavy corrosion on metalware pieces like bronzes and cloisonne - these are possibly signs of chemical distressing, not real age. Large reign marks are often suspicious - many genuine pieces were unmarked. Look out for suspiciously dirty pieces - dirt does not necessarily mean age - especially for pieces that are easy to keep clean, like porcelain. Speaking about porcelain, good luck! It takes YEARS to become modestly proficient in authenticating Chinese porcelain. You will have to learn all about Chinese history, shapes, enamel colors, painting styles and techniques, glazes, kiln techniques, foot rims, marks and calligraphy, etc. Old wood darkens with age - learn how to recognize true aging from artificial coatings.Understand that real silver pieces are almost always hallmarked, and these marks are extensively cataloged to aid in authentication. Knowing just a little bit about each of these areas will help a lot.
A SPECIAL WARNING ABOUT IVORY
As of Jan 1, 2009 trading of IVORY was no longer allowed on eBay, but sellers routinely say "ox bone" to get around this.
Interested in ivory? Wow. What a cesspool of problems. In addition to there being mountains of fake ivories to contend with, genuine ivory is a highly regulated commodity that can land you in huge trouble with local law enforcement if you do not understand and comply with the international CITES regulations, and local laws. If you are unfamiliar with the CITES regulations, don't even THINK about buying any antique ivory artifact. There is a very good eBay UK guide to ivory by member argento_glitter that discusses the legal pitfalls of trading in this controlled commodity - start there. The bottom line is that all ivory transactions need to conform to the world-wide endangered species laws, and all items need to be genuinely old (pre 1949) and accompanied with proper CITES conformity paperwork which includes valid provenance proving the article is pre-ban.
WHAT ABOUT THE HIGH QUALITY FORGERIES?
There is big money in fencing high end master forgeries. These pieces are exquisite, and even experts are often fooled. These forgeries have made their way into the best of dealers, museums, noteworthy collections and the high end auction circuit - so there is no reason to believe eBay is immune. These are the pieces that are most troublesome to serious collectors, because skilled forgers go to painstaking lengths to create their dark art. Buying one of these means loosing thousands of dollars to what is essentially criminal fraud - not something many of us can afford to do.
Thinking about buying an expensive, very rare high-end piece from one of those high profile "boutique" Asian Art dealers on eBay? Not for the timid, and certainly not for the novice. Try to find out as much as you can about the dealer. Find out if they have a street address that's an actual storefront - or are they running this as an internet only business. Ask them where they get their pieces from, and if the piece has any valid provenance. Google the dealer name along with the keywords "fake" and "forgery" just to see what dirt comes up. Since some of the most active collectors with the biggest money live in China and Taiwan - look through the dealer's feedback to see if they have ever sold pieces to these legitimate Chinese buyers. If not, why not? Verify the dealer's no-questions-asked return policy and get the piece authenticated, from multiple sources, as soon as you get your hands on it. Then authenticate it again.
Guarantees of authenticity are great - but make sure you really understand what "authentication" hoops the dealer will force you to jump through before they will accept any returns. Even if you live in a major city, getting opinions from Asian Art specialists from the Major Auction Houses, or major Museum curators is damn near impossible - even for us - and we know a few folks in this business. Most museums enforce a policy of never commenting on works outside their collection. TL (Thermoluminescence) from Oxford Authentication or C14 testing from Rafter costs at least $500 - if you need to do it, you will need to eat the cost of the test. AND ONE TEST IS NEVER ENOUGH! We recently bought a Zhou Dynasty archaic bronze vessel that passed an Oxford TL test, but still ended up being detected as made from modern brass!
We're not pointing fingers at anyone, but sadly, there's just too much fraud in this business to trust or rely on anyone. When the stakes get higher, you have to increase your due diligence.
HOW MUCH SHOULD YOU BID?
If you are absolutely wild about a particular piece and must have it at any cost, bid 3 times more than you think you will ever need.
But we prefer to acquire pieces at a wise price - a price that will allow us to get our money back, or occasionally make a modest profit, when we decide to sell them again. The thing about collecting Chinese antiques is that what you find appealing when you first start collecting is not what you will want after a few years. As you learn more and more, and see higher quality examples in the market, your taste will probably improve and you will gravitate towards those higher quality pieces. You will likely want to flip parts of your collection to re-invest in better pieces - and the secret is always to buy right in the first place.
QUALITY CHINESE ANTIQUES ARE RAPIDLY RISING IN PRICE. Expect current prices to be as much as 5x what they were only one year ago.
Even with this rapid rise in pricing, most authentic antique Chinese pieces on eBay will eventually end up being a bargain - even after heavy bidding. But bear in mind that if prices start to approach major auction house prices, it's time to stop bidding. Remember - when you buy a piece off eBay, you are buying something essentially without provenance. Provenance means provable history of ownership. (Forget about Certificates of Authenticity - they are not worth the paper they are printed on). Even if the item is authentic and rare, you will probably never be able to re-sell it through a major auction house or dealer, because they won't even look at pieces without provenance. The major auction houses have been stung and embarrassed by clever fakes, so they won't take pieces without provenance. That means some day you will have to re-sell it on eBay or through a minor auction house, and you will never get its real value with these venues. We stop bidding when a piece approaches 1/3 of a Sotheby's type level - but that's your call.
Finding the hidden jewels can be very exciting. Sometimes you run across a valuable piece that has been totally mis-identified and mis-classified by a seller who didn't have a clue what they had. Hot damn! But guess what? With 800 Million eBay users, you are NOT going to be the only one to find it! The serious collectors are always looking in unrelated categories, checking for mis-spellings, looking for generic descriptions, etc. There may be fewer bidders, but valuable pieces still tend to draw the serious bidding action, no matter how messed up the listing is.
"ABANDON ALL HOPE - YE WHO ENTER HERE" ???
The odds are heavily stacked against you - and it's going to get worse. The heydays of finding cheap rare Chinese antiques on eBay are now behind us, never to return. But there are still some cool treasures out there - if you are smart enough to recognize them, wise enough to bid appropriately, and lucky enough to win. Want to invest in quality decorative Asian art but are not prepared to battle this tsunami of fraud? Consider collecting Japanese pieces as an alternative. Once you've recognized how to identify the fake modern Chinese copies (it's really not that hard to recognize fakes because the artistic quality is NEVER as good as the Japanese originals), your chances of finding authentic Japanese pieces are much, much better. Plus, dealing with the Japan based dealers is generally much safer.
The rapid rise of prices for Chinese pieces has made Japanese alternatives much better value for your money and we find ouselves collecting it more and more for this very reason.
Good treasure hunting!
HERE'S A QUICK QUIZ TO SEE IF YOU GRADUATE!
How many Chinese Dehua blanc de chine porcelain statues are now being listed on eBay? The answer should be something over 100.
Now, how many are authentic antiques? None? Maybe one... maybe... Excellent!
Now, what about the Song Dynasty Geyao piece in our avatar? Bought it here on eBay. Real or Fake?
Real! (OK, it's not really Song Dynasty, but it is an early Qing Ge type copy - and it is genuine and old and rare.)
We scored big. You can too! OK, you Graduate!
And thanks for the negative votes scammers!