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17 May, 2011 - 10:01 By News Desk

Cranfield and Bonhams fight porcelain pirates

Colin Sheaf, chairman of Bonhams Asia

Cranfield University and global arts & antiques auctioneer Bonhams are pioneering new forensic technology to authenticate antique porcelain and ensure fakes don’t find their way to market.


The collaboration combines major advances in the identification of ever-smaller proportions of trace elements with essentially non-invasive sampling.

The technique will be particularly useful in the field of Chinese art which has become one of the hottest sectors of the global art market in recent years, and nowhere more so than in the demand for fine antique porcelain.

While prices for the finest Imperial porcelain have soared, so have the ambitions of highly accomplished fakers, seeking to infiltrate spectacular new fakes into a market feverish for top quality material.

Technology exists to distinguish scientifically the genuine treasures from the fakes, but the technology normally used is over 40 years old, invasive, and no longer entirely trustworthy.

Forensic science often manages to identify small differences in very rare elements in an object. These ‘trace elements’ can often identify an object's place, and sometimes date, of origin if a good database already exists for similar objects.

‘Trace element analysis’ is regularly used in many kinds of detective work, from establishing the original source of premium organic foods to researching ‘scene of crime’ evidence.

It has never been practical in the past to use it systematically in the art market because obtaining samples has often been unacceptably destructive and databases are neither detailed nor specific enough. The Cranfield/Bonhams project aims to change that.

“This is the most exciting art-authentication project I have ever seen,” said Colin Sheaf, chairman of Bonham’s Asia, and the global auctioneer’s senior Chinese art specialist.

“For decades we have sought a forensic technology that will easily and reliably address the authenticity problems generated by 30 years of relentless faking of expensive Chinese ceramics.

“Cranfield’s team will now provide the specialist technology and experienced forensic scientists to carry out the analysis, and Bonham’s will define the practical issues and provide access to the core data material. We will work together to establish the methodology that will give us all confidence to make robust deductions from tiny quantities of core sample.

“This project combines cutting-edge Western technology with China’s finest Imperial art in a unique and unprecedented collaboration. It will be of immense benefit to both participants, and the wider academic and commercial art market. It will add greatly to the current expertise that we already bring to bear on analysis of an object to establish its provenance.”

Dr Andrew Shortland, reader in forensic archaeomaterials and director of the centre for archaeological and forensic analysis at Cranfield University said Cranfield had made significant investments in new laboratories and staff to extend its forensic analytical abilities.

He said: “The analysis of a wide range of art and historical objects is one of the most exciting growth areas for us. It is a pleasure to work with the experts from Bonhams on this project and I look forward to developing robust scientific techniques to help them in their identification of copies and fakes.”

Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's oldest and largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. It has major salerooms in London’s New Bond Street and Knightsbridge and a further four throughout the UK. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and Boston in the US; and Switzerland, France, Monaco, Hong Kong, Australia and Dubai.

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