Sotheby’s Disagrees With Chinese Art Historians on ‘Gong Fu Tie’ Calligraphy

Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy attributed to the Song Dynasty- poet Su Shi (1037-1101) .(Detail) Sold for $8.2 million at Sotheby’s. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s

Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy attributed to the Song Dynasty- poet Su Shi (1037-1101) Sold for  $8.2 million at Sotheby’s is the subject of a crontroversy as Three Chinese art historians claim it is a counterfeit. Image courtesy of Sotheby’s


Three Chinese art historians heighten the controversy about Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy sold at Sotheby’s by formally pronouncing it a counterfeit.


HONG KONG, HKSotheby’s continues to fight to preserve its reputation after accusations that one of the works sold at auction in New York in September is fake. The work, Gong Fu Tie, is described as a masterpiece of Chinese calligraphy. Created a thousand years ago, the scroll dominated by just nine characters is characterized by fluid brush strokes and attributed to the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi.  Estimated at $500,000, Gong Fu Tie was sold for$8.2 million to Liu Yigian, a wealthy Shanghai businessman, and collector after intense bidding.

Soon after the auction, three  Chinese art historians affiliated with the state-run Shanghai Museum alleged that the Gong Fu Tie calligraphy sold by Sotheby’s is fake and vowed to prove it. They noted that it was probably produced sometime between 1820 and 1871 using an old method for copying and retracing art works.  This method of copying and retracing, which goes back centuries, enables the Chinese to preserve artworks as well as understand the techniques used in their creation.

Since the news broke, Sotheby’s has continued to stand by the authenticity of the work even as it continues to investigate the claims made by the Chinese art historians.  That, however,  has not changed opinion about the work.  On January 1, 2014, the three art historians presented their findings in which they formally pronounced the Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy fake.

In its response to the  findings of the Chinese art historians,  Sotheby’s notes:

Sotheby’s team of experts has now seen the articles by Mr. Shan Guolin, Ms. Zhong Yinlan and Mr. Ling Lizhong in China Cultural Relics News on 1 January 2014 in relation to the Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy.  Sotheby’s was surprised that individual experts from a world-class museum took the highly unusual step of publically commenting on a commercial art purchase by a private collector.  Sotheby’s disagrees with the articles of these specialists and firmly stands by the attribution of the calligraphy.  We will respond to the articles within the next 10 days.  Sotheby’s reserves all legal rights in this matter.

The fact that the three art historians making this accusation are respectable scholars in the appraisal of ancient artworks is problematic for Sotheby’s, which is advancing a presence in China as a reputable auctioneer with the ability to authenticate all work it presents for auction.

Two of the historians making the accusations worked at the Shanghai museum before their retirement.   Shan Guolin was the former director of Chinese paintings and calligraphy, while    Zhong Yinlan was the senior connoisseur. The third, who still works at the museum, is Ling Lizhong

Although surprised by the finding of the three scholars, Mr. Liu patiently awaits the reports of the museum experts organized by Sotheby’s to appraise the work’s authenticity. If found to be fake, Sotheby’s might have to refund Mr. Liu.

The Su Shi (1037-1101)  Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy case, highlights recent events in China where many Chinese auction houses have come under intense scrutiny for selling fakes and forgeries.  This wide spread occurrence is giving experts and collectors a lot to worry about.  Collectors are becoming more conscious of what they buy, and are requiring greater authentication and provenance for works even if they were bought from a reputable auction house.