A good crowd of RSC Belgium members and friends braved some wintry weather on 14 March to hear a fascinating talk from forensic archaeologist Dr. Andrew Shortland of Cranfield University in the Swoosh Lounge at the British School of Brussels. Andrew described the work of his group in characterising porcelain - the 'white gold' of antiquity.
Andrew started with the story of the 'Ruislip Vase' a seemingly modest piece of porcelain discovered in a very ordinary house in north-east London in 2010. Having been used recently as a bookend it was recognised as an 18th-century porcelain vase made for the Qianlong Emperor of China. Valued initially at £1 million it sold at auction for over £ 50 million: a world-record for such an artefact. However, the object was not collected or paid for by the purchaser and the vase has recently been finally sold by auctioneers Bonhams for a more modest - but still substantial - £20 - 25 million.
Clearly porcelain is truly a 'white gold'. This reputation has held true across the centuries and recently the volume of sales of antique porcelain has increased rapidly. And, of course, this attracts the interest of 'entrepreneurs'. Dr Shortland brings the techniques of modern analysis to porcelain with the aim of identifying copies and fakes in Chinese and European porcelain.
Art of porcelain
The production of the thin glass-like ceramic known as porcelain probably began in China in the first millennium BC, but the earliest fine examples date from circa 650 AD. From the early medieval period Chinese porcelain was being exported and was greatly prized throughout the royal courts of the old world.
There was huge competition to create porcelain in Europe to rival those pieces produced in East Asia and in the early years of the eighteenth century this was accomplished, first at Meissen and then throughout Germany, France, England and elsewhere. Early examples of both Chinese and European porcelain are rare and growing in value - as witnessed by the Ruislip vase story. They have therefore been extensively copied, both by the factories themselves and by others seeking to imitate their wares.
Andrew's talk showed how two modern non-destructive analytical techniques - hand held X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) and Laser ablation inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometry (LA-ICP-MS) can distinguish between genuine early objects and later copies and fakes in both Chinese and European porcelains. His research has been conducted with a number of the world's leading auction houses who - obviously - have a keen interest in the findings.
The insights provided by Dr Shortland was appreciated by our audience and there was a very good discussion after his presentation about the determination of the true provenance of antiques and art objects.