Zhāng Dáqiān was a prominent Chinese painter, collector, and forger, often called the greatest Chinese art-forger of the 20th century. In addition to selling museums authentic historical works he collected, and genuinely new works he painted and sold as original Zhang Daqian works, Zhang also sold museums numerous forgeries. These included forgeries claiming to date as far back as the Tang Dynasty, which entered the collections of elite museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (MFA).
Life & Career
Zhang was born in Neijiang, Sichuan province, and was first taught to paint by his mother. The Qing Dynasty collapsed when he was 12, and in the tumultuous political changes which followed, his brother, Zhang Shanzi, who supported Yuan Shikai, was forced to flee to Japan. Zhang Daqian then visited his brother several times in Kyoto in 1917-1919, where he also studied Japanese traditional dyeing and other textile arts. Returning to China, Zhang was briefly a Buddhist novice, and then at age 21 moved to Shanghai, where he began formally studying painting under two prominent Shanghai artists. In accordance with traditional Chinese painting training methods, he practiced chiefly through a combination of close copying, and looser imitation, of existent masterpieces. By age 23, in 1922, he had already, perhaps, successfully forged works by Shitao (1642-1707), one of the most celebrated artists of the early Qing Dynasty; even Huang Binhong (1865-1955), the greatest Chinese art connoisseur of his time, was fooled, or at least confused, by Zhang's work, and is said to have been quite annoyed.
Zhang exhibited at a Sino-Japanese exhibit in Tokyo in 1931, and for much of the remainder of the 1930s-40s, became so famous that the contemporary art world in China was often summarized as "Pu in the north, Zhang in the south," referring to Pu Xinyu. Zhang spent much of the wartime studying and reproducing works from China's lengthy artistic and cultural history, including trips to Dunhuang in 1941-1943, and extensive practice in reading and reproducing seal script.
He also collected numerous historical works, including especially works by the masters of the Ming Dynasty, many of which he would then sell to major museums in the West. Through his dealings in both authentic historical works, and his own masterful contemporary pieces, he was able to earn a significant degree of trust from major museums in the West, which then allowed him to begin passing off forgeries. In 1957, he sold to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, through a middleman, a painting he claimed to be a 10th century original by Guan Tong, going so far as to not only artificially age the silk and the like, and to include seals of authentic historical personages to create a plausible line of provenance, but to even match his forgery to a work listed in the Xuanhe huapu, the Song Dynasty inventory of the Imperial collections compiled by Emperor Huizong, thus passing it off as a painting known to have existed, and which was now resurfacing. Building on the success of this sale, the following year he sold the museum a painting of Vimalakirti which he successfully passed off as being a 6th-century original from Dunhuang.
Following the Communist takeover in 1949, Zhang fled to Taiwan, moving from there to Hong Kong, then India, Buenos Aires, and finally to Sao Paolo, where he would remain until the 1970s. Banned from returning to mainland China due to his having been labeled a Guomintang (Nationalist) supporter, he finally relocated to Taiwan in the 1970s, as his health began to decline. While continuing to produce works in historic styles, he also in his late years produced a number of splashed-ink works in a style more contemporaneously popular in postwar Chinese art.
Though embarrassed for many years by these forgeries in their collections, and thus keeping them hidden away, in 2012, the MFA held an exhibition of Zhang's work, celebrating his skill, and telling his very interesting story.
His scandalous prominence in the art world is such that it has become quite common today for curators and other connoisseurs when considering a Chinese work to ask "could it be by Zhang Daqian?"
- "Zhang Daqian," Asian Art Newspaper, 9 April 2012.
- Gallery labels, "Zhang Daqian: Painter, Collector, Forger," Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2012.