Monthly Archives: January 2014

Fake It Till You Make It

For any of you who have been following this blog for awhile, you already know the issue of machine-made puppets within the world of Chinese shadow puppetry.  Two years ago, I wrote specifically about their growing dominance of shadow puppet market and how this newer/faster/cheaper specimen is hard e to distinguish from the real thing, and more urgently, how it is rapidly depleting whatever market was left for handmade puppets.

I’ve stated this before and I’ll state it again: I have no problem with machine-made objects or mass-produced copies of an original.  What I do have a problem with is the exploitation of a public’s lack of expertise and knowledge in order to sell these mass-produced machine-made objects as something else; in this case, a hand-cut shadow puppet.

This machine-made issue continues to be a problem wherever shadow puppets are sold.  A fellow puppeteer recently told me he bought some puppets off eBay.  Without even asking him about it, I knew they had to be laser cut.  With a cursory search, I turned up a number of options labeling themselves as ‘Chinese Handicrafts’, even ‘Vintage Chinese Shadow Puppet’ although – at anywhere from $9.99-$29.99, I’d bet my shorts there is nothing handmade or vintage about the thing.  And they’re not.  Just hold your cursor over the photos for magnification and you’ll see the tell tale sign of the laser cut (covered in this earlier post).

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.16.19 PMFind it here.

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.16.50 PM Find it here.

Screen shot 2014-01-14 at 3.17.33 PMFind it here.

And as crabby as that makes me, a newer, more complicated threat has been creeping in on the shadow puppet horizon as of late.  It’s a sneakier, smarter knock-off that’s been duping the best of them.  China is now beginning to create hand-cut faux antique pieces.

I first encountered these when I went to visit a dealer friend of mine at the legendary Pangjiayuan ‘Antique Market’ in Beijing during my Fulbright year (2011).  I’d met him earlier on the shadow puppet circuit, most memorably at the shadow puppet conference in Gansu province.  I contacted him to do a bit more research on the going prices for shadow puppets from different regions (as the market has jumped notably in the last 5 years or so) and he gave me much more of an education than I bargained for.

After we were done chatting about regional styles, going prices, and machine-made puppets (of which he had a few), he took a long pause and gave me a sideways glance.  “See that puppet up there?” he asked.  “The small Northeastern style male figure?” I asked.  He nodded.  “What do you think?” he asked coyly.  I walked over to the small Eastern Beijing style puppet hanging on the line and looked a little closer.  It was hand cut.  Ok.  I looked closer.  It had a dark patina on it, which usually indicates usage/wear/age as smoke lanterns and oil from human hands darkens the leather, but this one was different.  It looked slightly dusty and crusty, instead of well worn.  Upon even closer inspection I could see that there was no additional wear marks on any of the control rod connections or joints.  This really piqued my curiosity.

“What is this?” I asked.  Not wanted to make a claim I would be too embarrassed to retract.  Again, he paused for a long time.  I wasn’t sure he was going to tell me.  “They’re fake old puppets.”

Sh*t.

We spent the next 30 minutes or so going over the details, the things to note, the sensorial features of faked antique puppets and at some point I threw up my hands.  It was hard to tell on some of them.  “How will I, can I, ever be sure?”  He reminded me that now, after seeing so many machine-made puppets, I could pick them out of a lineup.  Well, that’s what it would be like with fakes once I got more experience.  It’s simple connoisseurship.  I bought a few fake samples to take home with me, just in case.  I thanked him, deeply, and said my goodbyes.

Faux Antique

Faux Antique 2My fake-antique samples.  Look pretty good, don’t they?

Although it’s a few years back, I remember this day and this meeting with such clarity.  Probably because it gave me such a royal shakedown.  After a day or two of feeling defeated, I tried hard to revive my spirits.  I reminded myself that there wouldn’t be fake-antiqued puppets if there wasn’t money to be made from them.  China has been knocking off their antique jade and porcelain for decades, successfully selling their wares to local and foreign museums and collectors.  Shouldn’t I feel happy that shadow puppetry has achieved the honor of being forged?

Over the last few years, those wishy-washy feelings of forced optimism have faded completely.  The fake issue within the shadow puppet market of China needs to be controlled.  The best way to do this is to devise an easy method(s) to identify fakes and transmit this knowledge to those who need it.  In my initial research, I’ve secured a wonderful museum with a solid Chinese shadow puppet collection – who I believe has a few fakes – to allow some testing and further experimentation to be done.  With some cooperation from a few puppet cutters in China who have sourced a few possible chemicals used for the shadow puppet patinas and some connections in North America from museum archivists on how to go about devising a test, I believe we have a starting point.

Since my first encounter with a faked-antique, I’ve seen thousands more puppets in numerous collections and museums on both sides of the globe.  My connoisseurship is far above what it was 3 years ago.   Seeing the real and the fake, the old and the new old, has repeatedly set me on course.  We owe it to the incredible masters who have given their life to doing it the hard way, every day.

Thanks, so much, for reading~

Additional reading on museum fakes and China:

A Hebei Province museum closes when it’s discovered that most of its artifacts are fake:                          http://www.theguardian.com/culture/2013/jul/17/jibaozhai-museum-closed-fakes-china

Forging and Art Market in China/NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/projects/2013/china-art-fraud/

Bloomberg weighs in on China’s growing global antique market and the number of fakes:                                                        http://www.bloomberg.com/video/89827873-growing-number-of-fake-antiques-in-china.html

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