Seven experts say objects not genuine antiquities

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The Daily Sundial contacted scholars of ancient Chinese antiquities from around the world, seven of whom are presented below. All experts contacted by the Sundial expressed serious doubts about the authenticity of the objects in CSUN’s collection of Chinese artifacts.

The centerpiece of the collection is described by a CSUN press release as “an ornate, 3,000-year-old gold and bronze ritual vessel valued at $5.5 million that is believed to be unique in the world.”

The Oviatt Library’s Web site states that the object is from “the Early Western Zhou dynasty, circa early 11th century B.C.”

There is also a small glass water buffalo stated to be from the Han dynasty (221 B.C. to 220 A.D.), and a stone axe blade, reportedly from the Stone Age.

The second part of the donation consists of two bronze animals and three bronze vessels, all of which are approximately 2,000 years old, according to the library’s Web site.

Experts

The experts contacted by the Sundial said they believed the objects are made of a jumble of motifs and shapes from vastly separate periods of history, with no uniformity in style, unlike authentic artifacts.

Other experts’ concerns focused on the surfaces of some objects, which they said appear to be a “crude” mixture of well-known pieces, as well as bronze surfaces that look less than 2,000 years old. Some of the experts also said the corrosion on the surfaces of some artifacts appear to be artificially created.

Experts said that visual inspections, in person or looking at photographs, are the first step to investigating whether an object is authentic or not. They said while it is almost impossible to definitively authenticate an object by visual inspection, the authenticity of an object can be ruled out if it visually drastically strays from any reasonable accepted norm.

Some of the experts could not view the artifacts physically due to their various and distant geographical locations.

One of the experts who wished to remain anonymous explained that sometimes appearance can reveal a great deal about an object, relating how, for example, that if a person looks at the Statue of Liberty, it is clear that it is not a an ancient object. In the same way he said that it is clear to him that these objects are not of ancient origin.

Patricia Berger, chair of Art History at University of California Berkeley and former Curator of Chinese Art at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco from 1982 to 1994, expressed surprise when she viewed the photos of the objects on the CSUN university Web site during a phone interview in February.

She had heard of the collection but had never seen pictures of the objects until she looked at the pictures that had been recently (December 2005) posted to the library Web site.

She said that the bronze objects have an odd patina (surface look) that she had never seen before on ancient objects. Looking at the photo of the ritual vessel with jade handles, she said that it was extremely strange and an oddly crude object, and a hodgepodge of styles from different eras of Chinese history.

“This object has no relation to anything from the period,” she said after viewing the objects on the university website. “The top looks like a lotus, something that is from much, much later.”

Berger said all the bronze objects looked like they had been dipped in acid, a common way to try to make bronze objects look like ancient objects.

She said she was convinced that the CSUN objects were not ancient objects and that it disturbed her that these objects were being represented as objects from the area of the Three Gorges Dam, an area that is now underwater and therefore impossible for any more archeological work to be done there.

Berger said that the objects look like they were of recent manufacture.

Roderick Whitfield, professor emeritus of art and archeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London and scholar of Chinese art and archeology, examined university photographs of all eight objects in the Tseng collection.

Whitfield, author of “The Problem of Meaning in Early Chinese Ritual Bronzes,” a composition cited by the Smithsonian Institution as a reference work for people interested in studying Chinese bronzes, said he had no knowledge of the Tseng collection before he examined the photographs.

He said the objects he examined in photographs in November 2005 did not appear authentic.

“I’m sorry to say there appears to be nothing authentic about the (photographed) pieces,” Whitfield said in an e-mail of the eight objects he evaluated.

The first object he assessed was the gold and bronze ritual vessel.

The Oviatt Library’s Web site states that the object is from “the Early Western Zhou dynasty, circa early 11th century B.C.”

The vessel seemed composed of materials from different eras, Whitfield said.

He said bronze and jade were only combined in the late eastern Zhou period (770 to 221 B.C.), and that there are no objects of this shape known in the period that the ritual vessel is attributed to.

Whitfield said there were jade tiger handles in the Zhou period, but that the vessel’s handles look to be from a later period, as do the main decorations of dragons on the surface of the artifact.

“The lid in the form of inverted lotus petals seems to indicate a Buddhist model of the sixth century A.D.,” Whitfield said. “This is a contrived assembly of disparate elements put together at a pretty recent date.”

Whitfield offered an explanation for how the vessel might have come into being.

“The two jade tigers might just be genuine late Zhou dynasty or Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), and the rest of the vessel constructed to fit them,” he said. “It’s pretty clumsy and would not deceive anyone in the field of Chinese art studies or trade.”

Whitfield said a glass buffalo piece, which was dated between 400 and 221 B.C., according to the Oviatt Library university Web site, does not seem authentic because “most of the glass objects found in China were imported from western Asia, since glass blowing was practiced throughout the Roman Empire, but never in China.”

“The gilding on the Tseng vessel is made to look as if it were partly obscured by the (corrosion) of the bronze, but this green patination (supposed corrosion product) has been artificially induced,” Whitfield said.

The library Web site showed a picture of an object in the Tseng collection, “a Bronze ram Zun with gilding from the Western Zhou-Han period – 10th century B.C. to 220 A.D.”

Whitfield said only one authentic double-ram Zun exists in the world, and it is a “very famous” object at the British Museum in London.

Carol Michaelson, an assistant keeper/curator of the Asia Department at the British Museum in London, examined photographs of the ritual vessel and the jade buffalo and shared some of Whitfield’s concerns. She has taught Chinese art at the University of London, one of the leading institutions in the study of ancient Chinese antiquities.

Michaelson, who specializes in Chinese jades and early Chinese material and is researching the chronology of jade tool working in early China for the British Museum, said these objects struck her as being of recent manufacture when she saw photos in November 2005.

She said there were no glass animals in the period attributed to the water buffalo, and she expressed doubt about the ritual vessel’s veracity.

She was unfamiliar with the Tseng pieces before November 2005.

“(The) vessel also looks as if it is attempting to imitate an ancient archaic shape, but is quite unlike any archaic vessels that are known,” Michaelson said.

“My opinion, therefore, is that these are not ancient objects, but are quite typical of ones that are regularly seen on the market today,” she said.

Pieter Meyers, one of the three experts whose services were offered in Kuwayama’s 2004
letter and who attended the exhibit, is a specialist in the chemistry and makeup of ancient works of art.

“Seeing the objects, I have major doubts of their authenticity based on their appearance,” said Meyers, who declined to comment further.

Colin Mackenzie, the Robert P. Youngman curator of Asian Art at the Middlebury College Museum of Art in Vermont, said he assessed that most of the eight artifacts, which he saw by photograph for the first time in December 2005, looked like reproductions of ancient objects.

“Although the bronzes are vaguely in ancient style,” he said, “they are such distortions of real pieces that (I would not) hesitate for a moment to dismiss them. The glass weight in the form of a water buffalo is a bit more difficult. I have never seen a similar piece in glass, though ceramic pieces do exist. I am doubtful about this, but would have to handle it to be sure.”

Mackenzie said the bronze cylindrical jar with jade handles is not authentic.

“My opinion is that all these pieces, with the exception of the axe blade, are recent (reproductions),” he said in an e-mail. “The only piece I am somewhat uncertain about it is the water buffalo. It is probably (a reproduction not of ancient origin). I might be wrong.”

A Chinese art specialist based on the East Coast expressed similar concerns about the legitimacy of the Chinese artifacts in CSUN’s collection.

The specialist, who preferred to remain anonymous because of the wishes of her employer, has examined and evaluated thousands of Chinese artifacts and said she does not believe the objects in the Tseng collection are authentic.

She examined photographs of all the objects in the CSUN Tseng collection in November 2005.

She said the ritual vessel is made up of shapes and forms that do not exist together in ancient Chinese objects.

“It looks like they are put together from different periods of history,” the specialist said. “It has a complex mixture of archaic forms and looks created to look interesting, something that you would want to pick up if you had not seen what the real thing looks like.”

“They look as if they were made to look old,” the specialist said. “The decorations don’t look at all appropriate for being from the era that they are from. The colors of the objects do not look at all right for something that is 2,000 years old. The forms are not like anything of the era from when they were supposed to be from.”

A prominent scholar of Chinese antiquities, who preferred to remain anonymous, said he believes the pieces are not what the university has declared them to be and appear to not be of ancient origin based on his visual observations in person of three of the objects and photographs of five more on the Oviatt university Web site.

The scholar said he saw some of the pieces in person during the Tseng exhibition of 2004 at the Oviatt Library.

He believes the ritual vessel looks historically incorrect, along with many of the other objects that he saw on display at the exhibition.

“If the collection is what the university claims it to be then it should be seen by the world, because it would be an amazing collection,” he said. “If it is something else, then it should be investigated.”