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Fakes in the Art Market: How a Dealer Turned a Lemon into Lemonade


What happens when an art dealer is confronted with evidence his product is a fake? Will he return the buyer's money, or insist on the piece's authenticity?


The Ceiling of the Oranienburg Palace outside Berlin painted in 1697 by August Terwesten. The underside of the large plate, center left, is like the dish I purchased and then returned. Photo from Wikipedia.

Buying is easy; Returning—not So much

For me, this story is very strange. A dealer sold me a fake. (See my previous column, The Art Market in a Muck, for the backstory.) Then, he resisted taking it back. To put me further off from returning it, he cited his years of experience handling and selling Chinese porcelain as proof the piece must be authentic. For further ammunition, he threatened to take the case to BADA (the British Antiques Dealers Association) to discredit me. Lastly, he said that he would never sell to me again—

I’m not sure he had to worry about the latter, but it is duly noted.

So, there was tension between the dealer and myself regarding my wish to return the dish I purchased. The seller wanted me to retain it and he would keep my payment. I wanted him to take it back and make a refund. We were at loggerheads.

But there was one thing I knew for sure. If I didn’t send the piece back, my money would never be repaid. So, I took a chance. I completed the complicated paperwork and packaging to ship the porcelain back to London. Within, I included my own weapons. They were composed of the statements of 2 experts who wrote books on the particular kind of dish I was returning. In addition, I included scientific observations by a specialist who uses surface microscopy to determine fake from authentic Chinese porcelain. All the experts independently came to the conclusion that the porcelain was not authentic.

As an aside, when I told the dealer over the phone about the surface analysis, he completely discounted it, saying something to the effect that “one expert says one thing and another, another.”

Remaining civilized

The dealer did refund my money in parts after he received the package. Though I had bent over backwards to make my case for returning the piece, I hoped he would not be angry. In a small field like Chinese porcelain, it is best to avoid making enemies. Also, this merchant had sold me wonderful objects in the past. He probably just made a mistake.

So, when the microscopy specialist was in London giving a presentation, I took the opportunity to go to London to hear it and also to take him to the dealer. My purpose was to demonstrate scientific evidence to the dealer that his piece was not real.

Analytics trumps aesthetics

When I arrived with the specialist in tow at the dealer’s shop, the dish the dealer sold me was nowhere to be found. But, he had other items that he thought might be less than authentic. He brought out 2. Between them, one was genuine using the microscopy technique and the other wasn’t. The dealer was impressed. He saw that science can trump judgments made purely by the eye. He wanted my companion to stay and continue examining his porcelain (free of charge).

A lemon into lemonade

But, time was short and we had to leave. The seller wanted to know when the specialist would be back in London again. Would he come to see him? Could he (the dealer) arrange for the specialist to see a prized private collection outside of London with him?

Clearly, the merchant was converted and wanted to make an attractive offer to the expert whom he now saw as help-mate rather than an adversary. By being the first among London dealers to use this technique, he would have scholarship behind him. That could not only lessen fakes among his stock, but also enhance his odds of making a sale.

So a lemon was turned into lemonade for the dealer who now felt he had a jump start on other Chinese porcelain sellers by having at his fingertips a new technique to determine authentic Chinese porcelain from reproductions.

The dealer was happy; I was happy he was happy and the dish—who knows? It might be at the bottom of the Thames by now. And, if so, when dredged up, this story could be recycled. Ah, the irony of it all.

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