The Elegant Bribery and Daring Forgers of China

Lotus and Mandarin Ducks by Zhang Daquian
24 million worth of Lotus and Mandarin Ducks by Zhang Daquian
According to Antony Ou of OpenEconomy:

“Apart from appreciation and investment, it might be an alien concept for laymen outside the Chinese system that one of the most essential functions of art works is corruption. The concept of ’elegant bribery,’ or Yahui in Chinese, refers to the action and process of a systematic corruption that only involves cultural products and artefacts: antiques, rare plants, paintings and calligraphy as a medium of the crime. Art works, in particular, have become no more than tools of corruptions among officials, merchants, art dealers and sometimes even artists…”



Ou goes on to identify the ancient history of the practice, and reasons why this is a preferred form of barter with officials for contracts, promotions, or other advantages.  First, the exchange also elevates the giver through its display of taste.  Second, the exchanged artwork may be worth more than today’s cash since it can skyrocket in value.  Third, it’s very hard to detect, since the recordkeeping on these antiques and art transactions is sketchy.  Seems like that might breed a huge market for fakes, doesn’t it? Well, that’s all incorporated as part of the system:

“…there is an open secret that gives ’elegant bribery’ a competitive edge over other forms of bribery: the treasures do not have to be real. Consequently, the very nature of elegant bribery creates rooms for perfect excuses for the corrupted officials. Even if they get caught, they can either say: 1) they do not know that the paintings are real; 2) the art works are fake and they do not have any nominal values. In fact, in some cases, even the artwork owners lie by saying that the real paintings are fake in order to escape from legal punishment.

Even the most famous painters/scholars in history created fake paintings. Ironically, nowadays, the Chinese regard this action as a virtue rather than a vice. They believe that only the true painters can be the ’masters of imitation’.”

One of the most notorious artists and forgers of historical works is Zhang Daqian (also Daquien), who is now widely admired for his daring.  His productions—in more museums and collections than would have earlier liked to acknowledge him—are now actively collected under his name.  The image above sold recently at auction for over $24 million.  In fact, now people are even recruited to forge his pictures, and if that isn’t meta-meta, what is? 

Read the whole article to learn the 7 divisions of labor in a forgery shop, as well as the 4 most common scenarios for discreet offer and exchange of such rarities.  And the next time the cop stops you for speeding, you might try offering him a different kind of parchment.

Clare Toohey may also be found at Women of Mystery, tweeting @clare2e, and learning to paint ducks.

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