Up until the 19th century, to be a copyist or pasticheur was a respectable artistic profession. During the 17th century more than half of the paintings that changed hands were copies. Over the past century though, already undermined by the invention of photography, this long-established craft has become confused in the popular imagination, largely through sensationalist media coverage, with deliberate attempts to deceive. Today connoisseurs turn up their noses at a mere copy. The British are particularly guilty.
Nevertheless, the ability to copy still fascinates. A recently published book, Fakes by Alice Beckett, published by Richard Cohen, explores the slim line between copyist and forger, and over the summer several London galleries have held popular exhibitions of copies. Director of the Raw Gallery, Haydn Reynolds, might describe it as "a bit of fun", but a few of the works in his recent show would be good enough to pass at auction as the real thing.
Particularly convincing are the pastiche Miros (in the style of the artist) and copied Modiglianis (straight copies of known works) of Nick Pace, one of the country's finest "fakers".
Pace also works for Art Connoisseur, a slick, year-old West End-based gallery which has come up with the somewhat disingenuous art term "original reproduction". The 75 artists in its stable will copy "anything from the Renaissance to Kandinsky", says director Clare Grossman. "But we never hang anything by Picasso, Mattisse, Dali and other modern artists because of the 50-year copy- right laws."
Copyright is not the only potential pitfall. Pace and his fellow copyists may not intend to pass off their work as originals, but they are at the mercy of unscrupulous, shady dealers.
Master copyist Leo Stevenson, recently shown at the Ebury Gallery, makes sure that everything he paints is fully documented. When a Frans Hals he'd painted turned up for sale as an original in Germany, he was able to show Interpol the documentation.
Stevenson and his peers may not be criminals, but do they really believe that the copyist's art is a noble tradition, or are they merely skilled but unoriginal artists, out to make a fast buck?
"My main interest is the 18th century, particularly Stubbs. After art school in Cheltenham I got into copying by lecturing on technique at the National Gallery. I wondered `how do they do that?' and I began to make copies. Then I realised there was a market for them. I don't worry about people passing them off as an original but I'd never sell them as anything other than a `replica'. I stamp the back but someone unscrupulous could remove that. Any expert, though, could eventually tell they weren't the real thing. I suppose if you were to copy something obscure, worth say only pounds 6,000, you'd get into a difficult area. The art world must be full of that sort of fake. I work as closely as I can with the original materials and always in the case of a copy to the same size. With pastiches it doesn't matter so much. Ultimately I'm just producing decorative paintings. They're not works of art."
Prices: Modigliani pounds 750; Stubbs pounds 2,000.
"I'm the best in the country. I may sound arrogant but I believe that I know more about art than most copyists. After art school I worked as a restorer for the British Museum for six years. I really do use authentic materials. Other copyists will say they do but don't believe them. My research is painstaking. Particularly for the pastiches, but copies can also take a long time. My copy of Vermeer's The Art of Painting took 800 hours to paint and about the same time to research. One of the reasons I do what I do is to absorb what the painters were getting at. Of course, I'm never going to have the spark of genius they had, but it's a bit like a classical musician playing a work and making variations on a theme. I see myself as a performer passing on the message of the composer."
Prices: Monet pastiche pounds 1,800. Vermeer "well into five figures".
"I work as an illustrator, and I also paint in my own style. I started copying when I saw a competition for fakes in the Artist's Newsletter. I thought about it intellectually and Dali seemed the obvious artist. I have copied Monet and Renoir but I find it easier to copy something highly detailed than very expressive. With Matisse, for instance, every mark has to be absolutely right. I do worry that some people might be tempted to pass them off as original, but I know the legal position is that as long as I'm not trying to imply they're original, I'm safe. I always write in indelible pen on the back. The Homage to Dali took a lot of research - to understand what he was trying to do. In it I've combined about a dozen of his paintings in one canvas. Making that painting and the Dali copies has enabled me to understand his work in the same way that painting from nature we achieve a greater understanding of the natural world."
Raw Gallery price: Dali copies pounds 800; Homage to Dali pounds 700.
"I trained as a painter in the US. I mainly do Monet but I can do other artists. I insist on keeping to the original techniques of the artists. I'm currently working on a Brueghel - building up glazes. I got into copying through a friend who needed paintings for an old castle where the originals had been sold. I'm a sort of artistic chameleon. My own style changes a lot. You can't paint every brushstroke in the same place as the original artist but I like to think that if Monet walked into the studio he'd think that my painting was one of his. I always work to the same size as the original and use an indelible pen to mark the back of the canvas. I can do a Monet in about a week. That's fast but, after all, Monet was turning out two or three in the same time. I just paint straight copies, never `pastiches'. There's a magical quality to it - the presence of the artist in the room.'
Art Connoisseur prices: Monet pounds 600-plus; Breughel pounds 2,000.
The trade in copies: who buys them and why
Naturally most buyers of straight copies want to preserve their anonymity. Leo Stevenson reveals, however, that he has worked for the Royal Academy, the Foreign Office, Sotheby's and Christie's. "Clients might need works replaced for insurance purposes or other reasons. Some clients don't want people to know the original has been sold."
A case in point was Nick Pace's commission to paint a large Stubbs for the owner of an English country house who had been forced to sell the painting but didn't want to spoil the look of the room. Similarly, Antonia Williams has painted copies for younger brothers of landed families who no longer live with the originals.
Clare Grossman remembers similar aristocratic encounters. "We've had all sorts from lords and ladies to pop stars." Her average clients, though, tend to be middle-aged businessmen. "Sometimes they own the original and want to put it away. Sometimes relations don't know it's not the real thing."
According to Stevenson, a large percentage of clients - he cites a yacht builder and an oil baron - own the original but are prevented from hanging it by insurance costs.
Another source of custom is the tourist who wants to take home a bit of the National Gallery. Foreign buyers seem to lack English hang-ups about originality. "The English admire the skill but once they know it's a copy they think it's worthless," says Nick Pace, who sells regularly to Americans, Saudis and Indians. At last year's Raw Gallery show Jane Hart's copy of Dali's Narcissus went to a Japanese buyer. Antonia Williams was commissioned by a Russian woman to copy The Hermitage's Monet Woman with a Parasol. "She had missed it so much that she burst into tears when she saw my copy."
A classic case of the self-deceived. But what of the general public? Haydn Reynolds of the Raw Gallery is adamant: "We've never come across any buyer who, as far as we are aware, has specifically bought one of the works to fool anyone."
That is not Stevenson's experience. He implies that he has at times been commissioned to deceive. In particular, following some work he did for "someone prestigious in the White House", he was approached by the CIA who needed an Old Master as bait to trap a drug baron. Stevenson painted the picture, but swears he will never get involved with them again. Was it too dangerous? "No, I just never got paid." n Art Connoisseur, 95-97 Crawford St, W1 (0171-258 3835)
The Raw Gallery, 7 Gainsford St, SEI (0171-357 7570)
The Ebury Gallery, 22 Ebury Street, SW1 (0171-730 8999)
Jane Hart's Homage to Dali: spot the references:
1. Suburbs of a Paranoic-Critical Town (1936)
2. The Weaning of Furniture-Nutrition (1934)
3. Swans Reflecting Elephants (1937)
4. One Second Before Awakening from a Dream (1944)
5. The Persistence of Memory (1931)
6. Dali Nude in Contemplation (1954)
7. Eggs on a Plate Without the Plate (1932)
8. The Enigma of William Tell (1933)
9. Ghost of Vermeer of Delft (1934)
10. Slave Market with the Disappearing Bust of Voltaire (1940)
11. Mae West (1934)
12. Lobster Telephone (1936)