Sotheby's says disputed $10.4m Chinese scroll is authentic

BEIJING - Sotheby's has rebutted claims that an US$8.2 million (S$10.39 million) Chinese calligraphic scroll it sold at auction in New York last year is a fake, defending its reputation as it seeks to gain a foothold in the fast-growing China art auction market.

The New York-based auctioneer issued a 14-page document authenticating the work by Song dynasty politician-poet Su Shi, China's equivalent of one of Europe's Renaissance masters, which had been expected to fetch in excess of US$300,000.

The scroll, comprising just nine characters, went well past that estimate, going under the hammer for US$8,229,000, including a buyer's premium of 12 to 25 per cent.

The buyer, Chinese art collector and businessman Liu Yiqian, was quoted by Chinese media on Tuesday as saying he believed the work was real.

Sotheby's rejected assertions carried in the state-owned China Cultural Relic News, and written by three Shanghai-based researchers, that the more than 900-year-old scroll was not by Su Shi, also known by the literary name Su Dongpo.

The controversy over the scroll was widely reported in the Chinese media.

Sotheby's conducted its own review and said in a statement that an analysis of historical seals and brush work showed the scroll "is of such a high quality that it could only have been created by a masterly hand using a soft brush".

It asked the doubting researchers to provide a fuller explanation of the basis of some of their claims.

Sotheby's has sought to establish itself in China as a trustworthy seller of foreign and contemporary art, while avoiding the scandals that have hit the local auction industry. It held its first full China auction in December.

The Chinese auction market, which peaked in 2011, was estimated to be worth anywhere between US$4.74 billion and $12.10 billion in 2012, compared to US$9.25 billion for the United States and US$4.76 billion for Britain.

Brush strokes

Art fraud is common in China, but rarely leads to such disputes. In 2011, a painting by 20th-century master Qi Baishi was sold for US$65 million at the Chinese auction house Guardian, but the buyer refused to pay after questions of authenticity were raised.

The researchers first raised questions in December about the authenticity of the "Farewell Letter to Gongfu" or "Gongfu Tie".

Researchers Zhong Yinlan and Ling Lizhong argued the scroll was traced, based on similarities between the auctioned work and some known phony items in the collection of the Shanghai Museum, where Ling works.

Shan Guolin, the other researcher, also drew attention to what he considered to be the scroll's unnatural brush strokes.

The three could not be reached for comment.

The scroll is meant to go on display later this year at the Long Museum in Shanghai, a private museum based on the collection of Liu and his wife Wang Wei.