In 2011 an exhaustive undercover police operation recovered five small 17th century masterpieces stolen to order six years ago from the Frans Hals Museum in Haarlem, Holland.
The paintings, collectively worth millions of dollars, were subject to an extraordinary criminal supply chain that involved not just the thieves, but a Dutch lawyer, a businessman and two further shady characters, as well as, of course, the buyer, who has not been uncovered. Sue Eades-Willis is perplexed why they bothered: she could have provided all five paintings in a couple of months for a few hundred pounds.
Eades--Willis is no criminal mastermind, but rather her studio of in-house painters and expert art restorers are very handy with paints and brush. Her company, Ruby Cavalier, is one of a growing number specialising in producing legitimate reproductions (which is to say unsigned and, to avoid copyright issues, by artists now dead for at least 70 years) of famous art works - not screen-prints or laser copies, but actual oils on canvas, “as close to the original as you can get, using the same materials, techniques and brushstroke,” as Mike Mitchell, marketing director for art repro service 1st Art, puts it. “These reproductions are produced by very good artists in their own right but those who, crucially, are able to put away their egos and leave their own artistic input out of the work. And they each specialise in a style or painter - we have one artist who just does the Mona Lisa.”
“I have Monets, some Renoirs and a Degas. You can see the disbelief on people’s faces. The first question they ask is ‘are these real?’”
One wonders whether he still finds that smile quite so enigmatic. After all, the process behind creating a reproduction takes, depending on the complexity of the original painting, anywhere up to eight weeks full-time and results in a work of art that, to all but the most highly-trained eye, is indistinguishable from the original. While fashion plays its part - Mitchell notes how a major exhibition or world-record auction often prompts high demand for a particular painting, while the Vermeer biopic Girl With a Pearl Earring led to countless orders for the work of the same name - Van Gogh and Monet remain the big sellers. Ruby Cavalier, in contrast, specialises in works by lesser known artists such as John William Waterhouse, Gainsborough and Singer Sargent, “paintings that, hung over one’s mantelpiece, invariably come across as being originals,” says Eades-Willis, revealingly.
All that may give the game away would be the small likelihood of the buyer actually owning a priceless masterpiece or perhaps the size of the painting: philistine though it may be, buyers are not above having their famous artwork resized to suit their decor. “Though we draw the line at anything that distorts the ratios of the original image,” says Eades-Willis. “Some people do say, ‘can’t you just cut a bit off?’ But that is to disrespect the original art.”
Such companies will see their demand spike in the run-up to Christmas - receiving a Da Vinci is hard to top. But the more typical reasons for using such services are simple: for those who love a particular painting, it is probably as close as one can get to owning it without being fantastically well-off; and in most cases, even that won’t buy what is invariably not for sale - many of the most famous or seminal works of art are owned by the state or by public museums that very rarely sell them, and usually only then to other museums rather than into private hands. “Buyers tend to be that passionate about a painting but, like most people, don’t realise that an oil reproduction is possible,” says Paul Williams, owner of repro company, the Impressionist Art Gallery. “I have several at home, mostly Monets, but some Renoirs and a Degas. You can see the disbelief on people’s faces. The first question they ask is ‘are these real?’”
"If it's acceptable for music, literature or images on a movie screen to be endlessly reproduced, why is it unacceptable for a museum to hang such precise copies of masterpieces?"
But making an impression with your impressionists is not the only reason why a copy may be desired: period country houses like them to add to the atmosphere, while Paris and New York-based copyists Troubetzkoy Reproductions scored a good deal when commissioned to provide over 200 masterpieces for the remake of The Thomas Crowne Affair, which became necessary when the director’s request to film inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art were turned down. Work for the productions of Meet Joe Black and Mickey Blue Eyes, among other movies, has followed.
More seriously, global companies the likes of J P Morgan and Deutsche Bank, the latter of which has, with 50,000 works, the world’s largest corporate art collection, often commission reproductions for insurance purposes: known to own prestigious art pieces but unable, for security reasons, to display them in the headquarters lobby, a copy is a suitable stand-in. Private individuals may do the same. “They have these wonderful paintings in a vault and, ironically, can’t afford the risk to hang them,” says Eades-Willis.
In other words, you may be looking at a copy more often that you realise. Indeed, arguably the spread of such quality art copyists raises fundamental questions about the value of reproductions. If it is acceptable for music, literature, lines from a play or images on a movie screen to be endlessly reproduced without diminishing the quality or substance of their content, why is it culturally unacceptable for a museum to hang such precise copies of masterpieces for many more people to then enjoy?
The insistence on original specimens not only limits the public’s exposure to art - seeing a great work as a print or on a PC is not the same experience - but means many museums, unable to afford the original, are left full of second-rate or provincial work. Arguably, the art world’s argument that the only the single work that was handled by the original painter holds value is more a means of justifying the ticket prices or auction figures that such reverence brings - it makes little difference to the artistic communication of the work.
“It’s tragic that art has become so expensive. Art should be appreciated as widely as possible,” says Eades-Willis. “The problem is that there is, now more than ever, an element of snobbery in the art world - ‘I’ve got it and you can’t have it’. But that’s wrong. Everybody has a right of access to great art. Reproductions are one way to make that happen.”