Can Jade be scientifically dated?

“Is Scientific Testing of Jade the Answer?” – Article by Sam Bernstein

Published in Orientations Magazine, February 2000


The issue of scientific testing of jade to determine the age of the working of art objects is a central issue among jade collectors, academics and interested parties. Janet Douglas correctly points out in her well-argued essay “On the Authentication of Ancient Chinese Jades Using Scientific Methods” some of the limitations and pitfalls of applying scientific methods alone.

Recently a European auction house has mounted a sale in which it is claimed that “…a new scientific method to establish the authenticity of ancient jades has been developed.” The basis of this “new scientific method” consists of an examination of the tool markings present on the object and the analysis of the evidence of weathering. Weathering refers to the natural process of alteration to the surface of jade.

However, despite the claims of a new method to authenticate the date of manufacture of jade, the consensus of art historians and scientists that this author canvassed is that there is not, at the present time, a reliable scientific basis alone for the dating of a worked, or prehended jade object. I agree with Ms. Douglas that scientific analysis must go hand in hand with art historianship. The seeming verisimilitude of results from the testing procedures occurs when scientific testing alone is applied to the dating of jade. It is my opinion that while it is admirable to apply scientific testing techniques to jade, the observer must understand its’ limitations and place these procedures into an overall methodology of stylistic as well as physical review. Science must go hand in hand with art historianship.

The art historian has the visual ability to understand an object within its cultural and historical context. Scientific applications within this framework support the conclusions of the art historian, not vice versa. If the results of such testing do not support these assumptions, then further enquiry must be made to explain this discrepancy. In the auction catalogue mentioned, this key element of art historianship in setting the age parameters is missing. As Professor James Cahill remarked during the symposium Issues of Authenticity in Chinese Painting held at the Metropolitan Museum in New York in December, 1999, that in addition to scientific measurement we should “ not forget to look at the painting itself ”.

Indeed, what is a scientist to test for if the object before him sits with no reference points in a historical context or archaeological background? Those individuals who produce fakes are amazingly proficient at adapting to the nuances of scientific testing [See the author’s essay “ Fishing in the Jade Pond” published in Orientations magazine, September 1995].

There are other concerns which Ms. Douglas’ essay does not address. For example, will collectors be convinced to rely upon scientific testing alone to attempt to authenticate their jades? Will unscrupulous individuals in Asia and the West make use of “scientific testing” to pass off their confections in a market place overwhelmed with fakes? Who speaks for the collector, the individual who propels the jade market forward?

Without the input of the art historian and archaeologist, it is far too easy for scientific testing results to be misinterpreted and abused. This does a disservice to both art historianship and scientific enquiry and adversely affects the jade market worldwide by creating the impression of scientific infallibility. Comparison with archaeologically derived examples remains our strongest and most potent analytical tool. Science alone does not provide a panacea for answering our questions about the absolute dating of jade works of art. As in all areas of collecting, the collector must rely upon his or her common sense in such matters. Collecting jade can and should be a pleasant and rewarding activity. As lovers of jade, we must resist attempts to take this pleasure away from us.

Sam Bernstein

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