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Sham Oriental

( Originally Published 1913 )

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I use the word Oriental widely here, not referring to Oriental porcelain alone. Strictly speaking, there is no such thing as sham Oriental porcelain; the old English and French and German imitations of Oriental were copies, but not counterfeits. There is, however, sham Oriental porcelain in this sense, that common Chinese or Japanese stuff twenty years old or less is brought to Europe, and worked on by counterfeiters, who wish to produce something that greenhorns will buy as being old Oriental, heraldic or otherwise. About that I have written elsewhere.

Other Oriental Shams. It is of other Oriental curios which are forged that I now wish to write. In principal London thoroughfares I have seen shop-windows full of these counterfeits, and they sell, for I have seen drawing-rooms also that were almost full of them. I do not doubt that many a reader will have a "Benares " tray at home that was made at Birmingham, or a pair of "Japanese bronze" candlesticks that are not bronze, and never saw Japan.

Before me lies the Official Catalogue of Indian Art at the Delhi Exhibition, 1903. It is a sumptuously illustrated volume, written by Sir George Watt, C.I E. Here are pictured and described the real art-products of India; which are counterfeited in Birmingham and elsewhere, to be sold to unwary people with a taste for Indian curios and a wish to gratify it cheaply. Let us consider one or two items, as a warning.

"Benares Brass." There is the big, round, shallow brassy tray which is bought, with a sham "gate-leg " stand, made up of wooden balls wired together, to adorn suburban drawing-rooms and be the pride of a hostess about five o'clock on her "day." Now as a rule such a tray is not brass at all. It ought to be of solid brass -it is common white metal, lacquered yellow; it ought to be punched repousse, or cut into the most wonderfully intricate and unsymmetrical designs, but it is rudely chiselled - "done by a prisoner with a nail," is the legend which sells it-into crude, sparse, and balanced designs that would be impossible from an Indian craftsman's hand and eye. It speedily discolours, and will not brighten again or polish; nothing but re-lacquering will make it again look seemly and clean. Much the same things are true of the "Japanese bronze" candlesticks, cast of white metal in moulds taken from the real things, and then coloured to imitate and sell for old bronze.

"Japanese Ivories." I see pawnbrokers' shopwindows full of modern imitations of old carved ivory figures and old netsukes. Now, first of all, in these modern figures the " ivory " is often mere cut bone; secondly, it is often not even bone, nor carved, but celluloid or horn, moulded when hot. Thirdly, when it is ivory and carved, the carving is (for the Orient) very poor art and workmanship; and, fourthly, these modern figures at their best are not beautiful, not fine, not ancient, and not "art." Moreover, they are too plentiful ever to make an appreciating "line" for a collector, and they will become more plentiful still, for they are being exported to Europe from Oriental manufactories by shiploads every year.

Sham Netsukes. A netsuke is a kind of button, not really a button, however, but, to be accurate, a knob or boss-something used as a weight or stopper for a slip-knot, to balance the fan, or tobacco-pouch, or what not fastened by a thin cord and depending from the wearer's sash. To be valuable, a netsuke must be old; it may have been finely carved, but the main thing is that age and use should have worn away the sharp edges of the carving; what Japanese connoisseurs consider a desirable old netsuke is one which has been worn and used, and thereby rubbed, rounded, and smoothed. If you look at the sham netsukes in the pawnbrokers' shop-windows you will see how they differ from all this; no age-long friction by silken wear has been at work on them.

The rarest and perhaps the oldest real netsukes are those which originally consisted of a knot, core, or root of hard wood; the artist took the naturally shaped material, cut and carved it a little, and brought out the particular shape which his eye saw it resemble. But the sham netsuke is seldom of wood; it is often moulded out of celluloid or horn, and when it is a moulded one, you will see, if you look closely, the places at which the half-moulds joined-there is a seam, and the seam is often darker in colour. When the modern thing is actually carved ivory it is so roughly hewn and inartistic as to be of no art-value, I say, and it has no collecting value at all.



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