Fakes often look better than real antiquities to the inexperienced eye - they are often intact, invariably un-restored and their colors are more vivid.
To avoid spending a lot of money on fakes, it is even more important to follow some simple principles before making a purchase.
The great demand for historical thangkas in connection with the very limited supply have led to high prices and to numerous fakes.
However, it is not that difficult for the layman to distinguish counterfeit thangkas from authentic pieces. These tips and hints may help to avoid bad purchases.
Generally, to the untrained eye, fakes often look better than genuine antiques - they are often intact, invariably unrestored, and their colors are more vibrant.
To avoid spending a lot of money on fakes, it is all the more important to follow a few simple principles before making a purchase.
Important: Not all of the indicators for or against authenticity listed below must always be true. For example, there are definitely old scroll paintings that are completely undamaged or have a high color intensity. However, these thangkas are extraordinarily rare and are hardly ever offered on the market. At auctions, they often fetch six-figure results.
1. Colors and surface
Natural colors based on plant, mineral and other natural substances [e.g. charcoal] were used as paint for ancient thangkas. However, the longer they were exposed to daylight, the more they lost their color intensity and contrast over the decades and centuries.
Pollution from incense-burning butter lamps in the monasteries led to soot and deposits of dust and to oily substances on the surface. The photo shows an old scroll painting with visible signs of age.
Fakes can also be recognized by their strong colors and contrast.
There are almost never old scroll paintings with a perfect surface. Therefore, sure markers of fake thangkas are an intact canvas with a smooth surface without fractures and cracks and stains.
2. Lack of fabric edging
There were no ancient scroll paintings without fabric edging. However, thangkas were often cut out of the fabric border. The border areas with the original stitching are then torn [top photo].
If a thangka is offered without fabric edging with a uniformly straight edge [lower photo], this is another indication of a fake.
3. Textile damage
Old thangkas have been rolled up and down countless times over the course of their lives. In the long run, this causes damage to the textile fabric which also affects the overlying layer of paint. Horizontal and vertical breaks of the canvas occur [see photo]. Other common damages of old thangkas are foxing.
Old thangkas regularly have damage such as creases, loss of primer and paint layers, superficial dirt deposits, discoloration, and wavy surfaces.
Sizeable tears in the canvas are often backed with patches of cotton.
There are almost never old scroll paintings with a perfect surface. Therefore, sure signs of fake thangkas are an intact canvas with a smooth surface without breaks and cracks and stains.
4. Water damage
Global climate change over the past 20 years has led to increased rainfall in the Himalayas. The ceilings of the ancient Tibetan Buddhist monasteries are made of rammed clay. They could no longer withstand the rain in the long run.
The water penetrated the ceilings, flowed into the rooms below and damaged many ancient thangkas. The old natural paints used are not water resistant. The rain led to color losses and in some cases even to textile defects. The photo left shows vertically centered a good example of such water damage.
Such damages are a sure sign for a high age of the pictures. Perfect thangkas fetch higher prices. Therefore, no counterfeiter makes thangkas with water stains.
5. Canvas structure of the back
When thangkas are painted today that are to be falsely offered as "old", the new canvas must be treated in such a way that it gives an antique impression. For this purpose, the backs are smoothed with glue, pastes and other liquids to simulate the desired old age. For this purpose, the liquids are additionally mixed with colours [ochre, light brown, dark yellow]. Since it is not always possible to paint the surface evenly, the resulting irregularities can usually be seen [see photo on the left where the smudging of the background colour can be clearly seen [see photo left].
The red handprint visible top left is no guarantee of an authentic image. Such an imprint is exceptionally easy to apply to the back.
Smaller fractures and imperfections are often only visible if you have a high resolution photograph available. The photo on the left shows a high magnification of the back of a real old painting. It clearly shows the marks that age has left over the years.
Renowned auction houses will send high resolution photos to interested parties upon request. Do not settle for photos that do not show these details.
Frequently, a rough image of the main subject of the front shines through on the untreated back of old scroll paintings. You can see this effect clearly in the photo left.
This shining through one looks for forgeries in vain. The reverse the image is formed only in the course of many years. Attempts to create this effect artificially with newly made roll images have failed so far.
But it must also be pointed out that there are also authentic antique thangkas without this effect.
7. Imprints and inscriptions on the back
The image on the left is another pretty sure indication of a fake thangka. Between the two handprints, the three mantra syllable "OH - AH - Hum" can be seen one below the other. These mantras are many times larger than mantras on real old scroll paintings.
Furthermore, one can see very well that the forger had no training in Tibetan calligraphy. This was also probably the reason for the unusual size of the three mantras. It is easier to paint these characters in the exaggerated size than to put them in an impeccable Tibetan script on the back. In the past, monks in monasteries had the task of placing inscriptions on the thangkas. The monks were trained accordingly in early childhood. Today's forgers are overwhelmed with this task. The result is immediately recognizable at first glance. [See also No. 8]
On some thangkas, Tibetan inscriptions can be found on the front. This is especially true for thangkas with a narrative content [e.g. The Life of Buddha Shakyamuni or Episodes from the Life of Milarepa]. The inscriptions explain the scenes depicted. These are mostly missing on the imitated thangkas.
It is difficult for the counterfeiters to place these texts calligraphically correct in the right size in the right places. For these reasons, such explanatory Tibetan texts are usually omitted from the fake thangkas. More frequent are the dedication and consecration inscriptions on the back. In the first place, the three Tibetan seed syllables OH - AH - HUM are always used for this among themselves.
These three syllables often have a size of several centimeters in the forgeries. The forgers are usually not Tibetans and barely mastered the calligraphy of the Tibetan script. The forgers are not Tibetans and are not trained in Tibetan calligraphy. It is easier for them to write Tibetan letters in this larger size. The inscriptions of authentic thangkas are max. 0.25 " | 1 cm high. The photo illustrates these differences.
More examples of dedication and consecration inscriptions on old scroll paintings.