A 10th-Century Masterpiece or Modern Fraud Chinese Art Experts Are Split Over the Authenticity Of an Ink-on-Silk Scroll

Wall Street Journal, 13 Dec 1999, p. A, 32:1.

A 10th-Century Masterpiece or Modern Fraud?

Chinese Art Experts Are Split Over the Authenticity Of an
Ink-on-Silk Scroll

This article appeared in The Wall Street Journal, 13 Dec 1999, p. A, 32:1.

by Jason Edward Kaufman

NEW YORK. A landscape painting in the Metropolitan Museum
has become the most controversial object in the field of
Chinese art. Competing scholars have staked their
reputations on wildly conflicting claims about its date,
some differing by as much as a thousand years. Curators at
the Met believe the ink-on-silk hanging scroll — known as
“Riverbank” — is a rare 10th-century masterpiece by Dong
Yuan, a founding father of the landscape tradition in China,
but a number of eminent scholars dismiss it as a fake cooked
up 50 years ago by its previous owner, a notorious forger
named Chang Da-chien (1899-1983).

More than 7 feet tall and 3 ½ feet across, the expansive
monochrome composition depicts mountains rising above a
riverside pavilion from which a scholar observes an
approaching gale. The scene may have been part of an even
larger mural or folding screen, the rest of which has been
lost. Along its edges are a signature by Dong Yuan and an
assortment of red-inked seals of ancient aristocratic
collections — details some have called “too good to be
true,” just the sort of “pseudo-history” Chang Da-chien was
known to concoct. What’s more, the picture’s style has been
called “anachronistic” and related to works by the forger.

“Riverbank” has become the lightning rod in a veritable
storm of debate. The “pro” camp is led by Wen Fong,
professor at Princeton and “consultative curator” at the
Met, who has spent more than a quarter century amassing
Asian art for the museum. His chief opponent is James
Cahill, professor emeritus at the University of California
at Berkeley and a leading U.S. academic in the field since

Mr. Cahill, who knew Chang Da-chien and has studied his
forgeries for decades, is certain the picture is a fake.
“This is not an old painting; it’s a modern fabrication,” he
says, “and I’m pretty convinced it’s by Chang Da-chien.” But
Richard Barnhart, a distinguished Yale professor and former
student of Mr. Fong’s, is equally sure it’s genuine. “I have
no doubt that it’s a 10th-century painting,” he states
firmly. “I don’t think it’s right,” counters Sherman Lee,
retired director of the Cleveland Museum and curator of the
Guggenheim’s 1998 survey “China: 5,000 Years.” “It could be
14th-century or 17th-century,” he concedes, “but I don’t
think it’s likely. We’re right and they’re wrong,” he says

On Saturday more than a dozen scholars from the U.S., China,
and Japan went head to head at a symposium titled “Issues of
Authenticity in Chinese Art.” The opposing factions were

Jerome Silbergeld of the University of Washington addressed
the audience wearing a referee’s striped shirt with a
whistle around his neck. The crowd roared as he cited the
competing scholars for various “violations.” But in fact, he
confessed, “in Chinese connoisseurship there is no
rulebook.” He left it for the audience to declare a winner.

Such confusion is relatively rare in the study of Western
art, but in the field of Chinese painting it seems to be the
norm. “You take any great classical [Chinese] painting and
call up twenty different art historians and you’d probably
get twenty different opinions,” says Mr. Barnhart, who finds
the lack of consensus “embarrassing.” The age-old practice
of copying the old masters inevitably leads to
misattributions, even when forgery was not the intent. And
high-tech tests are of little use in detecting fakes because
Carbon 14 dating would require dismounting the delicate
glued-down silk and excising parts of the image in order to
obtain samples. Besides, forgers are known to use antique
silk and ink, so even if the materials are old, the painting
may not be.

More than egos and truth hang in the balance. “If you
believe a painting is by any of these classic early masters,
it’s priceless,” says Mr. Barnhart, adding, “The ‘Riverbank’
is virtually the last one known to exist today that isn’t in
a museum.” Even in museums only a few landscapes have been
widely accepted as belonging to the 10th century, and not
one is securely attributed to the legendary Dong Yuan. “To
admit the ‘Riverbank’ into the small canon of believably
signed early Chinese paintings would…oblige us to rewrite
our histories,” states Mr. Cahill — which is precisely what
the painting’s defenders propose to do. According to Maxwell
Hearn, a colleague of Mr. Fong’s at the Met, “We’re pushing
the horizon line of Chinese painting studies backwards at
least a century.”

The Met acquired “Riverbank” and 11 other works from Wall
Street financier Oscar Tang, a Met trustee whose sister
happens to be married to curator Fong. The artworks had been
part of the collection of C.C. Wang, a famous painter,
collector, and dealer who lives on the Upper East Side of
Manhattan. Now in his early nineties, Mr. Wang fled China in
1949 and gradually accumulated the world’s finest collection
of Chinese paintings, including many associated with the
last emperor’s court. For decades he has been the most
important source of this material for American museums, and
both a bidder and seller at Sotheby’s. In 1973, he sold the
Met 25 works for the then staggering sum of $2.5 million,
but held back “Riverbank” supposedly because he thought it
might be used to ransom his son left behind in China. In
1997, his son having emigrated, Mr. Wang sold “Riverbank”
and the 11 other works to Mr. Tang, who promised them to the

No one believes that Mr. Wang or the Met’s curators would
knowingly perpetrate a fraud and risk besmirching their
hardwon reputations. But Chang Da-chien, the skillful
painter and collector from whom Mr. Wang acquired
“Riverbank” in 1968, was an inveterate con man. Little is
certain about how he got hold of the painting, though there
is an unsubstantiated story that he traded for it with a
painter friend following its “discovery” in China in the
1930s. What is certain is that Chang Da-chien regarded
forgery as a way to test people “proud of their taste.”
Among those who failed his test were curators at the British
Museum, the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Freer
Gallery in Washington, to name but a few who were taken in.
Couldn’t Mr. Wang too have been deceived?

“As far as I’m concerned, Dong Yuan’s Riverbank is one of
the very best paintings I have seen in over 70 years of
collecting,” reports Mr. Wang in a recent fax. “I am
familiar with the kind of forgeries [Chang] made….and
would have no part of it. Chang knew that,” he says. “I
certainly would not allow a forgery by Chang Da-chien to
change the quality of my [collecting] record.”

That record is the subject of “The Artist as Collector:
Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from the C.C. Wang Family
Collection.” On view until Jan. 9, the exhibition includes
60 paintings and calligraphies the Met acquired from Mr.
Wang, a handful he sold to other museums or private
collectors, and more than 20 items still in his collection
which the museum hopes to acquire. (Apparently the Met
waived its policy against exhibiting private collections
that might be for sale, an indication of Mr. Wang’s unique
importance in the market.)

Rather than whitewash “Riverbank”, the Met labels it
“attributed to Dong Yuan” and hangs it beside a
“10th-century” forgery by Chang Da-chien from the British
Museum. An accompanying text panel asks, “Ancient
Masterpiece or Modern Forgery?” To my eye, the two works
look nothing alike: The forgery’s patternized mountains and
overall lack of complexity seem categorically different from
the naturalistic grandeur of “Riverbank”, which furthermore
exudes a far more convincing aura of age. Indeed, the
pairing seems calculated to dispel any doubts. Mr. Cahill
cautions that “the correct response…is not: This is too
good to be by Chang Da-chien,’ but rather: This is an
exceptionally fine Chang Da-chien, perhaps his finest’.”

I am not convinced. But Carl Nagin, an expert on Chang
Da-chien who authored a piece in The New Yorker about the
controversy, believes Mr. Cahill is correct. After all, Mr.
Cahill outed the “ancient” painting in the British Museum as
a fake by Chang. “Is history repeating itself?” Mr. Nagin
asks. C.C. Wang isn’t worried. “We have a saying in China,”
he says: ” Real gold fears not the wrath of fire.’ I am
confident that the truth will prevail.”

[“The Artist as Collector: Masterpieces of Chinese Painting
from the C.C. Wang Family Collection,” remains on view at
the Metropolitan until Jan. 9.]

Jason Edward Kaufman


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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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