The Museum Company, an American art-reproduction superstore, is coming to British shopping centres: no need to slog round a boring old museum to stock up on shiny new artefacts
museum gift shops with their posters, old master printed coffee cups and Picasso fridge magnets only have one drawback - you have to spend an hour-and-a-half in the museum looking at the pictures before you can allow yourself to go shopping with a clear conscience.

This will be solved next month, when The Museum Company, a chain store group from America, sets up shop here. The idea is simple: you take fine art out of its museum setting and marry it with a superstore concept, then you make an awful lot of money - in Japan and America anyway. But will shopping centre stores selling copies of Rodin, Michelangelo and gilt imitations of ancient Egyptian jewellery work in Britain?

We should soon know when the first two English stores are opened in the Brent Cross shopping centre, north London, and the Bentalls centre, in Kingston, Surrey.

The Museum Company will sell bronze reproductions of Rodin's "The Thinker'' (approximately pounds 200) and Degas's "Dancer'' (its best-selling item); and a hydrastone (reconstituted gypsum) version of the Venus de Milo (it comes in two sizes, small at approximately pounds 80, and large at pounds 200).

The shops also sell necklaces and bracelets based on trinkets from Egyptian times through to the Victorian era, in 18-carat gold or gilt. For the new British stores, the company has specially ordered Celtic jewellery to help us get in touch with our ancestry.

For visual art lovers the Museum Company has found a new method of reproducing oil paintings that makes pictures look just like the real thing, with dips and humps and contours of simulated artistic brushwork compressed on to a real canvas backing. With a choice of hundreds of paintings and several different frames they will cost up to pounds 300. Imagine what your friends will think when you casually show them what appears to be an original Titian on your kitchen wall.

Bill Edwards, the Museum Company's founder, is now in charge of a runaway success, with stores in the United States, Canada and Japan. He started the company at the turn of the decade and now has 63 shops, each bringing in over $1 million a year. "People write in to me and say `I love your store,' " he says, "You can buy anything from a major present for a loved one to a small hostess gift if you don't want to take a bottle of wine to dinner."

Hostess gift? "Yes, like our small fridge magnets that only cost a few dollars - for example our Dress Me Up David, which is very popular. It is in the shape of Michelangelo's David and it comes with a variety of stick-on outfits, so one day he can be wearing a dress, the next, a business suit. We have a similar one with Botticelli's `Venus', but it didn't sell so well." People obviously prefer to leave her naked.

The most expensive item on offer is an 18-carat gold reproduction of a Victorian charm bracelet. Each year a Victorian lady's lover would give her another precious stone to hang on the bracelet and by the end of her life, she would hope to have a complete set. The one on sale in the Museum Company shops sums up our Nineties need for instant gratification: it comes complete ("fully configurated" is the term that Mr Edwards uses) and costs around pounds 2,000.

Mr Edwards was formerly head of business at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This inspired him to start up his own company. "I saw how well the museum shop was doing and then it hit me what a good idea a museum shop-only store would be."

He says that far from taking revenue away from hard-up museums, the shops generate interest in collections and artefacts. "One of the most popular stores is in a mall in Las Vegas, Nevada, where most shoppers are tourists. You overhear them saying, `Gee, I didn't know you could see this in our museum in Memphis' or whatever. Anyway, we are very different from museum shops. We have a much wider range, some 2,000 items, combining works from collections as widely dispersed as the Uffizi in Florence, the Louvre, the British Museum and the Getty in California."

He added that each year the Museum Company pays museums throughout the world some $1 million in royalties. "Some people are worried about competition, but we support museums."

In Britain the reaction to the Museum Company from the art world has not been negative by any means. The Victoria and Albert Museum, which has led the way in dragging British museums into the commercial sector, will have its own V&A area within the British stores.

Confronted with a reproduction of Rodin's "The Thinker'', Jacob Simon, curator of the National Portrait Gallery, did not wince. "Some people like this sort of thing, although it is not to everyone's taste. Few people can afford original works of art, so this type of replica serves a purpose. I myself," he confessed, "have bought a plastic replica of a plaster work by Tassi, and for me, it captured something of the original." Is the Rodin an accurate copy? What about the strange lump on the side of his head? "Well, the original has lots of lumps and bumps," observed Mr Simon.

The Museum Company stores are large - up to 4,000 sq ft per shop. Like the two British stores, most are based in purpose-built shopping centres, bringing museum artefacts directly to shoppers.

But, accurate as the reproductions may be, London auction house Phillips was not taken in for a minute when we tried to sell them a faux-Victorian brooch featuring a partridge in a pear tree. "This is not an original piece. You couldn't get much for it. Sorry," was the disappointing response.

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