How a little-known Welsh painter became Britain's most forged artist

Chinese copycat studios churn out thousands of Mandy Wilkinsons – alongside Da Vincis and Warhols

Like many contemporary artists battling to establish a reputation, Mandy Wilkinson had dreamed of her name appearing one day alongside the likes of Van Gogh and Joan Miro on the sales list of an international gallery with thousands of clients around the world.

Unfortunately, when this happened to the 38-year-old abstract painter from Wales, who by her own admission remains some way from being a household name, the result has been a nightmare every bit as vivid and dizzying as one of her canvases.

Thanks to the efforts of Chinese "art factories" that are turning out thousands of fake paintings bearing her name, alongside reproductions of works by greats from Turner to Da Vinci, Wilkinson has found herself with the unwanted title of Britain's most forged contemporary artist.

For reasons that remain a mystery to the painter, her name was plucked from obscurity by the owners of massive copycat studios in Guangdong, where serried ranks of artists churn out "original reproductions" of works from the Mona Lisa to Warhol's Marilyn Monroes for sale by mail order for as little as £40 a canvas.

Thousands of paintings carrying the purported signature of Wilkinson are circulating around the globe, creating manifold problems for the artist, whose work is priced from £2,000 to £6,000. Hundreds of people have bought fakes after they were sold on as genuine works by unscrupulous middlemen and galleries.

As well as art fairs in New Zealand and America, the fake Wilkinsons have turned up in London's Portobello Market, the Ideal Home show and provincial galleries, including a shop in York that refunded its customers when told the works were not genuine.

Speaking from her home in Denbighshire, north-east Wales, Wilkinson told The Independent: "I've had emails from around the world from people saying how pleased they were with this painting of mine that they have bought and wanting to know its title or some further information or to commission another piece.

"I never sign my pieces on the front and when I asked them where it is signed, they say on the front and I have to tell them that they have bought one of these Chinese fakes. I have never seen the paintings that these studios are producing in my life. It is very frustrating. If you are buying a Picasso or a Dali by these people, you know you are getting a reproduction.

"But when you are a contemporary artist without that sort of profile, people don't know your real paintings and you are going to struggle to get enough prominence for your own genuine work. I have had people phone up wanting to commission me on the basis of one of the fakes they have bought. When I tell them that they don't actually have one of my pieces and what it would cost to commission one, I normally don't hear from them again."

The artist, who only obtained gallery representation this year, has worked hard to establish her name after graduating in 1994 from the Cumbria Institute of the Arts.

Her distinctive abstract pieces, which feature on the website of the Saatchi Gallery, play on the contrasts between the three-dimensional and two-dimensional worlds, often placing a stark geometric shape in front of firework-like layers of paint.

It is an eye-catching style which plainly attracted the operators of the Chinese studios, many of which produce their works by machine and then finish them by hand so they can be sold as "hand-painted" art.

The industry produces more than five million paintings each year. Artists are paid about £20 for each reproduction. The first canvases carrying Wilkinson's name, which are not direct copies of her work but are based on her abstracts, appeared a decade ago but there has been a rapid acceleration in the quantities appearing on the market since 2005.

The Independent yesterday contacted one of the Chinese companies, www.paintinghere.com, and was told that the Mandy Wilkinson paintings on offer were "recreated by our talented artists based on her catalogue" and would be ready for delivery in two weeks, at a cost of £97 a canvas.

David Godfrey, the owner of Gallery at 94 in London, which represents Wilkinson, said: "Mandy is probably the most ripped-off artist working today. We know for a fact that there are now thousands of these canvases coming out of China with her supposed signature and it creates a real problem.

"It is being offered at all sorts of prices in all sorts of places from respectable galleries to eBay. Unsuspecting buyers are going into these galleries, being told they are genuine and getting ripped off. We are talking to lawyers to see if action can be taken to close these distributors down."

Forgery has a long and profitable history in China and the country has built a reputation as the world capital for art fraud. It is estimated that 80 per cent of the value of goods offered for sale in some Chinese cities are fake – from paintings to porcelain, antique furniture to wall hangings.

Some pieces circumvent the experts and the increasingly vigorous authentification processes employed for items emanating from the Far East and can end up for sale at top galleries or auctions, or make their way into leading museums.

Even the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has faced persistent questions over one of its Chinese works. The acquisition in 1997 of a group of paintings which included Riverbank, believed to be a rare 1,000-year-old silk scroll by Dong Yuan, was thrown into doubt when scholars suggested it was created by Chang Ta-Chien, a popular modern painter hailed as the Chinese Picasso.

Chang created 30,000 paintings before his death in 1983, including many forgeries, which only added to his controversial cache as an artist and critic. In the end, the Met, which maintains its piece is the real thing, borrowed a landscape from the British Museum that had been attributed to Dong's follower, Juran, but is now acknowledged to be a forgery. The two paintings were displayed side by side so the public could draw its own conclusions.

There is a long history of forgery in Britain too. Most famously, the artist Tom Keating faked more than 2,000 paintings by 100 artists during a long career. Among his "victims" were Rembrandt, Degas and Gainsborough. He confessed in 1970 but refused to identify his works. He died in 1984 after a fraud prosecution was dropped on health grounds.

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