Buyer beware: All is not as advertised at Asian antiquities dealer
By Duff Wilson, Sheila Farr and Brian Joseph
The Seattle Times
January 26, 2003
© The Seattle Times Co., 2003
A tony shop in the heart of Seattle's Pioneer Square gallery district beckons buyers to own a piece of Chinese history:
A rare glazed tile from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220), for sale for $900. An elegant blue vase from the Song Dynasty (A.D. 960-1120), $3,800. An exquisite tricolor jar from the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), $12,000. An elaborate bronze elephant from the Warring States Dynasty (475-221 B.C.), $120,000.
To the eyes of tourists and window-shoppers, the gallery's wares may seem striking in their age and beauty. To the eyes of experts, however, they are something quite different.
The store's name offers an ironic if unintentional clue: Thesaurus Fine Arts. Just as a thesaurus is a book of words similar to other words, so are at least some of the so-called antique objects sold in Thesaurus Fine Arts only similar to the real thing.
They are fakes, a Seattle Times investigation has found.
Indeed, experts insist that most of the artifacts sold by Thesaurus in its shop and on the eBay Internet auction site are much newer than they are purported to be. Independent tests performed on two certificated pieces The Times purchased from the gallery found that they were copies worth only a fraction of their selling prices.
The world demand for authentic Chinese antiquities is burgeoning, and with it the market for fakes. Fraudulent ceramic, jade and bronze artifacts are ending up with unsophisticated buyers — and occasionally even knowledgeable collectors.
"It's a constant battle against fakes," said Julian Thompson, Chinese art specialist at the auction house Sotheby's.
The pieces sold by Thesaurus Fine Arts are a trickle in the flood — but notable in that, unlike many fakes, they are purportedly backed by scientific evaluation. Experts say they know of no other art dealer in the United States that makes such sweeping claims on obviously phony pieces.
The operators of the gallery, one of them a renowned economics professor and Nobel Prize candidate who has taught at Hong Kong University and the University of Washington, insist their goods are authentic and say they are "baffled" by findings otherwise.
But Asian art experts consulted by The Times universally agreed Thesaurus is peddling frauds. The gallery also sells contemporary paintings, but it specializes in antiquities. While some of those might be authentic, the experts agree, there is no doubt that many are not.
"They look bad through the window. You don't even have to look closely," said John Stevenson, former acting associate curator of Chinese art at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM). "I didn't go into the store for a long time; they're so obviously reproductions."
Robert Dootson, a prominent collector who is a SAM trustee and a member of its Asian Arts Council, stopped in at Thesaurus when the gallery opened in the summer of 1998.
"I was interested when I went in there, but you just take one look and it's so obvious. And the prices: If it were the real thing, they'd be much more expensive," Dootson said.
William Rathbun, curator emeritus of Asian art at the Seattle Art Museum, agreed.
"It's one of those too-good-to-be-true things," he said. "People I know are too savvy to go for that stuff."
But many buyers — even some who consider themselves knowledgeable — are apparently not that savvy.
Brian Jacobs, a Bellevue radiologist and Asian art collector, bought two items from Thesaurus last year. He dealt with Edith Crighton, 74, the genial manager of the gallery and president of the company.
Jacobs says Crighton assured him that the pieces, jade disks with ornate carving, were from the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. to A.D. 220) and provided certificates of authenticity. He talked her down to $3,066, one-third off the asking price and far less than the pieces would be worth if authentic.
"I knew just enough to be dangerous," Jacobs says. "I was driving home, saying either I have the most beautiful objects I'd seen, even in books, or I just got rooked. And as I got closer, I realized I just got rooked. You don't win the lottery often."
Jacobs checked with several other dealers who confirmed the deal was too good to be true. Citing those dealers, he returned the jade disks to Thesaurus, and Crighton — this time, not so genial — gave him a refund.
Shortly afterward, an attorney for the gallery — Kirstin Dodge of Perkins Coie, Seattle's largest law firm — sent letters to three art dealers Jacobs had consulted. Dodge demanded they "immediately stop" making "disparaging and false comments about Thesaurus and its merchandise" and warned the dealers they could be sued for defaming and hurting the business.
Furious, Jacobs filed complaints with every agency he could think of: the Seattle Police Department, the state Attorney General's Office, the U.S. Customs Service, the FBI.
"Everybody said it was somebody else's jurisdiction," Jacobs says. "Those guys didn't want to touch it."
So Jacobs, hoping to save others from being scammed, turned to the newspaper for help.
At 301 Occidental Ave. S., Thesaurus Fine Arts sits on the corner of the block that is the axis of Seattle's fine-art scene. On the first Thursday night of each month, the brick-paved, pedestrian-only square is the place to see and be seen. The gallery's neighbors include some of the city's most respected purveyors: Foster/White. Davidson. Grover/Thurston.
Entering Thesaurus one afternoon last fall, a Times reporter — giving his name but not identifying himself as a journalist — was greeted by Crighton. The reporter purchased two pieces that were relatively inexpensive: A ceramic teapot purportedly from the Tang Dynasty, for $1,900, and a pottery tile from the Ming Dynasty, for $315.
Both came with certificates of authenticity from scientific testing laboratories in Hong Kong.
The teapot had dirt caked inside, which Crighton said came from centuries of being buried underground. She gave assurances that all of the store's wares were genuine, and where there was any doubt they were tested by independent scientific labs.
Satisfaction, she said, was guaranteed.
"Nice sale," Crighton said to the reporter.
After buying the pieces, the newspaper had them evaluated by several local art experts, all of whom said they were inauthentic. But to be sure, the paper sent the pieces to be tested by two of the world's leading laboratories for establishing the age and authenticity of ceramics: Oxford Authentication in England, the world leader, and Daybreak Archaeometric Laboratory in Connecticut, which has tested for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art and more than 900 other clients.
Both use a scientific procedure called thermoluminescence, or TL, testing. Similar to carbon dating, TL tests the age of ceramics and pottery by measuring the radiation absorbed since the last high-temperature firing.
"As soon as I saw them, I saw they were fake," said Doreen Stoneham, founder of Oxford Authentication. Her test showed the Thesaurus objects — certified by the gallery as being at least 1,200 years old for the teapot and 400-600 years old for the tile — were certainly less than 100 years old and possibly new.
Victor Bortolot, director of Daybreak Laboratory, went even further: "I would say they are less than 5 years old, probably much less," he said.
Bortolot actually took samples from the same holes on the bottom of the objects bored by the Hong Kong labs that had vouched for their antiquity. Those labs also claimed to have performed TL testing on the pieces.
John Fairman, a highly regarded dealer who has sold Chinese art at Honeychurch Antiques in Seattle and Hong Kong for a quarter-century, said the tile appeared to be "something you'd pick up there (in Hong Kong) for $10 or $15." Of the teapot, he said: "This is the kind of thing, had it been real, you'd sell very quickly at Sotheby's or Christie's for $20,000, $30,000, something like that."
New testing certificates in hand, the Times reporter took the objects back to Thesaurus in December and got a quick refund from Crighton.
"It's an embarrassment to me, and I'd like to give them to the supplier," she said at the time. "I'm sorry. I'm glad I'm quitting in July."
When The Times attempted to buy other pieces from the store to have them tested, Crighton refused to sell them.
Weeks later, Thesaurus was selling four other painted tiles nearly identical to the "Ming" tile the newspaper had bought for $315. Crighton confirmed they were from the same group of tiles. Now they were marked "Han" and priced at $900.
In a few weeks, they'd aged more than 1,000 years and were almost three times as expensive.
Crighton said a shopper must have placed the "Han" sign by mistake. She removed it. Then she was asked about the price tags on the edge of the tiles, which said "Han $900" in her handwriting.
"Oh," Crighton said, pausing. "I just do what they tell me to do."
The Nobel candidate
Just who "they" are is difficult to ascertain. Company papers list employees as officers. Crighton says three married couples own Thesaurus; she would identify only the two people for whom she says she works under contract: Linda and Steven Cheung.
"Linda and Steve pay my salary," she said.
Steven Ng Sheong Cheung, 67, is a wealthy Hong Kong-born U.S. citizen with homes in Seattle, Hong Kong and Shanghai. He is famous in East Asia for his economics research, his books and his newspaper columns, and he has been Nobel laureate Milton Friedman's traveling companion on Friedman's trips to China and Hong Kong. Cheung himself has been touted by a member of the Nobel Prize selection committee as a candidate for the Nobel in economics and finished No. 25 in an unofficial survey conducted by Amherst College.
He also has had a long-running dispute with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, and he acknowledges that he is under federal investigation for alleged tax evasion. "I've done nothing wrong," he said.
Cheung says he developed an interest in antiques from his economics study of the effect of information on pricing in volatile markets. Although he confirms that he acts as an "advisor" to Thesaurus Fine Arts, he denies he is an owner or that he pays Crighton. He would not say whether his family owns it, saying ownership needs to be kept secret because of security concerns.
Many factors point to Cheung's active participation in the business:
• Crighton, listed in state papers as the company president, said "the principal owner" is an "Asian professor" who owns homes in Hong Kong and Seattle and whose daughter was getting married that evening in Seattle. The description fit Cheung precisely; that night, his daughter was married at St. James Cathedral and had a reception at SAM.
• Crighton, a former interior designer, says the Seattle law firm of Stafford Frey Cooper referred her to Cheung, who needed a store manager.
• A woman named Linda Su — Cheung's wife's name before marriage — is listed as administrator of www.thesaurusfinearts.com, the company's Web site.
• State documents list Arthur Circo of Mill Creek as chairman of the board. Circo, 64, says he is a real-estate broker for Cheung and not involved in the day-to-day operations of the gallery or Web site. Circo's business, Commercial Management and Leasing, is in a Mill Creek building owned by West Coast Land Investments, a corporation set up in 1981 with Cheung, his wife and his two children as officers. Asked about his connection to West Coast and Cheung's role in Thesaurus, Circo declined comment.
• Po Lau Leung, a City University of Hong Kong physicist who has tested antiques for Thesaurus, says Cheung or Cheung's assistant personally brought him all of those items — including the ceramic teapot purchased by The Times. Additionally, Leung says, Cheung bought his own testing equipment and set up another Hong Kong lab, called Adsigno Thermoluminescence Laboratory. Adsigno was the lab that provided the authentication for the tile The Times bought.
Cheung denies owning Adsigno — Latin for "to ascribe" — but won't say who does. He admits helping to set up the business and says the actual owners bought the equipment through him.
Papers filed in Hong Kong show the owner of Adsigno as Arcadia International Ltd. of the British Virgin Islands and Arcadia Press, a Hong Kong company that has published some of Cheung's books. Adsigno doesn't have offices where it says it does, and doesn't return phone calls.
• The supplier of the testing equipment used by Adsigno says he sold it to Cheung for about $60,000.
Back in Seattle, visitors to Thesaurus find a loose-leaf notebook at the front desk with documents extolling the company and identifying Cheung as "Advisor."
In that document, Cheung writes, "Having examined so many tested articles over the years, I am perhaps the best man on earth judging whether an article will pass the TL test with naked eyes."
Stoneham, the Oxford Authentication founder, remarked in response: "My reactions to the reports and the puffed-up statement from the dealer are unprintable!"
Earlier this month, Cheung said he had had the two pieces returned by The Times retested in the two Hong Kong labs.
Now they test "shiny new," he said. "How come is it possible?"
Cheung insisted they were antiques, not new, and that The Times or the mailing service must have re-fired the ceramics, which could alter the TL reading.
"Somebody did that to frame Thesaurus," Cheung said. "This is fraud to do that. This is a crime."
Stoneham of Oxford Authentication said her test would have detected any tampering, and there was none.
eBay sales abound
On the world's largest Internet-auction site, eBay, Thesaurus Fine Arts offers to test items at a lab of its choosing for a $250 fee.
Thesaurus lists hundreds of items a year on eBay. With rolling weekly auctions, some items appear time after time.
Yesterday, Thesaurus listed 18 items with minimum bids totaling $24,140. Auctions for five of the ceramic items claimed to have TL dating certificates. Auctions for two items priced at $120 and $200 say, "As the price is so low, it is not worthy to make the TL test." And an "excellent" green Qingbai Plate of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) "is too thin to be TL tested."
The most expensive items, jade and bronze, can't be authenticated by TL tests. For these, Thesaurus writes, "the dating is assessed by at least two of our expert advisors." Those "expert advisors" are not identified. Experts consulted by The Times — a former museum curator and five reputable dealers in Seattle and Hong Kong — said most of the items are at best dubious and probably fake.
A bronze mirror identified as being from the Tang Dynasty and listed for a $4,200 minimum bid was "highly suspect," said Stevenson, the former SAM curator. A Tang Dynasty jade Buddha head, with a starting bid of $3,800, was "patently wrong," Stevenson said.
The Internet auction site provides an area for feedback from buyers and sellers, and the comments about Thesaurus are overwhelmingly positive. eBay buyers have posted 162 positive comments from 89 different log-ins since September 1999; there are two neutral comments and one negative.
However, as eBay itself points out, there is no way to validate that the feedback does not come from people with an interest in helping or hurting a vendor.
Examples of the positive feedback: "Now the BEST in my Chinese collection." "Another great object from a great dealer." "Absolutely breathtaking object, expert delivery and service. Thank you, TFA!!"
The lone negative comment came from William Klebous of Australia: "FAKE, seller does not respond to evidence or eBay mediator, write me for details."
Thesaurus responds on the site: "Non-sense! The Hongshan jade is authentic."
Klebous said he bought two "Neolithic Hongshan" (3600-2000 B.C.) erotic jades from Thesaurus on eBay in December 2000 and January 2001. He said he showed the first one to a dealer, who pointed out modern tool markings and an artificial patina.
Klebous complained to Thesaurus. After a long wait, Klebous said, he got this response:
"My name is Steve; I am Thesaurus' expert advisor. I am very familiar of the Hongshan Jade sculpture you have purchased, and in my opinion there is no chance it is not authentic. Quite a few people may feel the price is too low to be authentic, but these people know nothing about the new finds. Refer your skeptical friends to me, so I may explain to them."
That set off alarms for Klebous. It didn't answer specific concerns. He consulted books and other experts, who concluded the figures could not possibly be genuine.
He again wrote Thesaurus. Three weeks later, he got a note back from "Steve of Thesaurus":
"There is zero chance the Hongshan jade figures you purchased from Thesaurus are not authentic. No way they could be replicated. They were excavated in province of Shantung. I know about this as a matter of fact."
Klebous then turned to his credit-card company and to eBay. He eventually got a refund.
Kevin Pursglove, a spokesman for eBay, said the auction company requires "some pretty substantial information" before it can act against dealers for selling fakes.
Experts say that even if it provides the occasional refund, Thesaurus can make money because of the huge markup on objects that aren't returned. Most buyers don't bother to have their purchases tested, especially if they pay just a few thousand dollars, because the TL tests cost as much as $500.
Byron McMahon, a North Carolina collector, bought a glazed boar from Thesaurus at the Seattle store and a pot on eBay.
"The shop fooled me," he said. "Normally, if they're in a nice place like that, they can't sell (fakes) long because they go out of business. Something's wrong there in Seattle."
McMahon had the pot tested by Daybreak Laboratory. The test showed it was new. McMahon asked to return the items, but Thesaurus told him too much time had passed since his purchase.
"They know exactly what they are doing," McMahon said. "I don't think they know anything but what a fake is."