The fragile, translucent beauty of Chinese and Japanese porcelain has for centuries made it the target of professional forgers. With today’s rapid advances in technology, the marketing of fake antiquities is hugely profitable, and Chinese Ming and Japanese Imari porcelain forgeries change hands for vast sums.
So sophisticated are modern fakes that even experts have difficulty recognising them - particularly pieces artificially aged by a new X-ray technique - and science is racing to stay a step ahead of the forgers. The drawback of current techniques for authenticating ceramics is that they can damage the items they are testing, which is where UWA’s Centre for Forensic Science steps in.
Professor John Watling has developed laser technology aimed at finding the chemical signature of solid objects – whether gold, diamonds, bullets, Aboriginal art or plant material - and this technique is being deployed by PhD student Emma Bartle to test the authenticity of porcelain. The unique advantage of the process is that it does not damage an artefact as other methods do: all it does is create a 20-micron hole in the surface of the sample, invisible to the naked eye.
”I am looking at applying this technology to Chinese and Japanese ceramics to detect forgeries,” Emma says. ”Because ceramics played such an important role in the cultural history of China and Japan, excellent records have been kept. Japan started making porcelain in the 15th century; China has producing it since the 8th century, and started making quality porcelain in the 13th century.
”By looking at the composition of the clay and glaze in a sample, and relating the information to the literature, we can tell what year it was produced, and even at which kiln site.”
Professor Watling has been refining the technique since 1992.
”We have increased the sensitivity of the process a million times since we began – we started with infra-red and are now using ultra-violet lasers. The technology is akin to taking a microscopic sunbeam and placing it anywhere on the surface of a sample to obtain point-by-point analyses,” he says.
Emma is working on porcelain shards up to 900 years old, building up a valuable reference database. The research has generated so much international interest that material has been loaned by leading dealers, including Bonhams Auction House, the Percival David Foundation of Chinese Art in London and museums such as The Kyushu Ceramics Museum in Japan. In WA, the team has also been analysing material excavated by the Western Australian Maritime Museum from wreck sites of Dutch and English vessels lost off the coast between the 17th and late 19th centuries.
The technology has applications that go well beyond detecting fake china: it can also be used to fingerprint gold and diamonds. According to Professor Watling, the technology has already saved the State over $1 billion in gold theft reduction alone. The Centre also works with the WA Police investigating crime scenes, and the technique could prove a vital tool in the aftermath of a terrorist attack.
Professor Watling said funding remained a perennial problem and it was vital that sponsorship support was found to continue the research beyond the next 12 months.