Chinese curator forges 143 classic paintings, sells originals

A woman looks at a painting entitled 'Tiger' by Qi Baishi, auctioned in Hong Kong on March 4, 2010. Qi's works were among those forged by a Chinese art academy curator from 2004 to 2010.

Story highlights

  • Former curator Xiao Yuan copied dozens of paintings and sold the originals at auction
  • He amassed millions of dollars from the sales
  • Fake products, known locally as "shanzhai," are a problem in China

Hong Kong (CNN)China's penchant for fakery has reached new heights, as an academic is charged with forging dozens of Chinese masterpieces.

The Chinese art school curator has plead guilty to charges of copying more than 140 paintings from Chinese masters, replacing the originals from the school library's collection with fakes and selling the works at auction.
Xiao Yuan, who acted as custodian of the works for two years at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, netted over 34 million yuan ($5.5 million), according to the Guangzhou Daily, a local newspaper.
    Xiao had a full set of keys to the collection and could access the works himself, copying his first painting in 2004 and continuing to sell the paintings via Chinese auction houses.
    One of the portals was China Guardian, one of China's oldest art auction houses. A spokesperson confirmed to CNN that the works had been sold through China Guardian, but that news of the thefts came to light through media reports. Executives from the company are due to hold a meeting Wednesday to formulate a strategy.

    Fakes upon fakes

    Xiao told the Guangzhou People's Intermediate Court that the practice was rife and that he had noticed forged works in the collection from his first day on the job.
    Protection for the paintings was lax -- students and professors could check out the paintings much as they could library books.
    He also said that some of the works that he had copied had been stolen and replaced with further forgeries.
    "I realized someone else had replaced my paintings with their own because I could clearly discern that their works were terribly bad," the 57-year-old told the court during his hearing.
    The art school didn't immediately respond to a request to comment
    Counterfeiting has long been a concern in China, with knockoff "shanzhai" goods spanning a huge range of products, from designer purses to Apple Watches.

    Famous works

    Over the two-year period Xiao had forged works from famous Chinese painters, such as watercolor artist Qi Baishi and landscape and still-life painter Zhang Daqian, himself considered a master forger.
    He was also said to have copied and sold "Rock and Birds," a ink painting from 17th-century master Zhu Da, according to Hong Kong's South China Morning Post.
    A similar work by the artist was listed on auctioneer Christie's website as having sold for $100,000 in September 2014.
    Along with the works sold, Xiao had kept some paintings. The total worth of the paintings that he is alleged to have stolen was over 100 million yuan ($16 million). Alongside pleading guilty, the accused also expressed "remorse" for his actions.
    Sentencing for the trial has yet to be scheduled, the court told CNN.