"Dig anywhere in Jingdezhen, and you will find old porcelain," said Mr. Xie, one of China's leading porcelain forgers. "It is my job to take all these old pieces and recreate 'antiques' for the world's markets."
Walking with Xie through an old antique market is like walking through Palermo with the Corleonis. People bow silently as he passes their spread of wares. Some of the bolder dealers reach out and offer him a cigarette, a pat on his back, a story of how one of his pieces fooled a collector. Xie collects these praises with a widening grin. He spreads his arms and boasts, "I can fool even the most knowledgeable collector."
Xie's operation is very humble. We walk past the spread of so-called antiques and enter a dilapidated barn. Shards of failed replicas litter the grounds. Empty paint cans and charred kindling form a bleak landscape.
"This building used to store coal for the fires of the neighboring kiln. With all the factories now moving to the outskirts of the city, I use this outpost as a small workshop to keep the market full of antiques."
Newly thrown pots, all replicating shapes from the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, line the walls. Most of these have yet to be painted or glazed. Later copies, some imitating export porcelain from the 19th century, sit on a table waiting to be aged.
Xie reaches down into the crushed earthenware dust that covers the floor.. A mixture of oils pools in an old grain measure. Xie dips in a coarse brush and grinds the bristles into the mud floor. He then carefully applies the thick mixture to the under-glazed body. He paints this on only in specific areas, using a selection of books as a guide.
"The aging of the sides of the vessel are not as important as ensuring the right depth of blues and brilliance of the white porcelain body. The critical process is left for last- the aging of the vessel's bottom and its accompanying dynastic marks."
For some pieces, Xie will incorporate complete shard bottoms recently uncovered in the many digs surrounding the city. Some of the finer shards, undamaged ovals with slightly faded blue emperor marks, are embedded in the thrown jars. The bottoms of these recently-thrown vessels are sheared off and the old shards, some dating back to the 16th century, become the new bases. Xie carefully smooths out the base until even an expert would have a difficult time knowing that the vessel is made up of two components dating some 400 years apart.
"It is becoming increasingly difficult to find the best shards. Many people are replicating this fashion of forgery. Complete bases are now selling for as much as $50 each. This is because that they can fool even the smartest collectors. I spend much of my time near the digs trying to negotiate for some of the finer shards?"
Xie takes me to his little tea room, four miniature bamboo chairs surrounding a folding table. Tea leaves dumped into paper cups (so strangely out of place given the mountains of new porcelain cups available throughout the market for under 10 cents apiece) and scalding water make the paper wilt and the beverage undrinkable for the whole discussion. Such ironies dot the modern Chinese landscape.
China loves its cultural heritage. Porcelain is viewed as one of the finest artistic traditions and a sign of the truly cultured. But there is no sense of ethical wrongdoing on the part of Xie and his colleagues. It is almost as if he is only continuing the legacy of his talented ancestors. Where and how his objects are presented and passed on means little to him.
Xie is sought out by dealers throughout the country. He meets regularly with forgers from other parts of the country. They challenge each other by bringing in 5-10 pieces, one of which may be real. If none of the experts guesses which piece is real, the forgeries have past their final test and are sent to middlemen around China. "Some of these even end up in our best auction houses," laughs Xie.
I contemplate the Jianxi tea leaves in my paper cup. Xie pulls out two magnificent bowls, replicating the fashion of the 18th century Qianlong Emperor. These items are among China's most expensive objects. Whereas the 2000 year old earthenware of the Han dynasty can be purchased for less than $500, China's current taste is for the refined, almost feminine, shapes and colors of the Qing dynasty.
"These two bowls, if real, would cost over $100,000 each. I will make over 50 of these each year, only two or three of which will fool my group of friends. These two bowls, even though they are recent copies, are among my most expensive pieces and will sell for over $1000 each. Some dealer will make a great profit on my talent."
Xie grabs my hand and leads me back out into the market. The crowds spread once again, and my lesson , now in a different venue, begins anew.