Real money in faking it

Alternative investments: legitimate copies have become popular in the art market, as the prices of many originals are still recovering from recession
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The Independent Online
IF you ever fancied an Edgar Degas painting but are a little short of the readies, your solution may be at hand at a Bonham's auction on 5 December.

Degas' The Dancer is for sale at a guide price of pounds 200 to pounds 300 - well, not quite, it is a copy, but your friends will probably be impressed.

Copies are a growing element of the art market, and they rose in value when original works hit the recession of the late 1980s and early 1990s. Many believe prices will rise further. But be warned, the copies that have value are those that are legitimate reproductions and reinterpretations that can be collected in their own right, not the fakes or forgeries that are increasingly passed off as originals, or those that are mass- produced.

The Bonham's sale is of work from the studio of Miguel Canals, a Barcelona artist whose reproductions have become admired and collectable in themselves. Until his death this year, Canals supervised copies of many Old Masters, often commissioned by owners who wanted the originals kept safe while having the reproductions on the walls of their homes.

"Canals was a good artist in his own right," says Pippa Stockdale, the head of pictures at Bonham's Chelsea auction house. "The paintings look the part, the effect is there, and they go for a very reasonable price. It is a particular, special, market."

The market in copies expanded during the recession, which badly hit art prices, says Alice Beckett, author of Fakes: Forgery and the Art World. "It's a market that took off in the '80s, and when the art market overall plummeted in the '90s, instead of plummeting too it actually benefited, because those who might before have bought originals decided quietly to buy copies. Since then, the market in reproductions has gone from strength to strength."

Ms Beckett believes that collecting reproductions is quite ethical. "The only shame is in pretending," she says. "There are some quite major collectors who have bought copies because they cannot get certain pictures."

David Collins used to be a director of Christie's but established himself as one of the leading dealers in reproductions when he saw a gap in the market. Most of his sales come after requests from customers for copies of particular works of art. "The best artists cost the most money. They sell from a few hundred to three thousand. Many go into office blocks, others go to big country house owners who are petrified of having things stolen and want to reduce their insurance bills."

He adds: "I started nine years ago and haven't looked back since. The market did well during the recession, it's not as strong now, but it is steady."

Mr Collins argues that reproductions are part of the tradition of art and are likely to appreciate in value. "Quite a lot of 19th century paintings are copies. What I have seen makes me believe there is a great market in the long-term for copies. There are fewer and fewer 19th century paintings around, and there has to be a gap. With the lessening of supply, more people will buy these." He sees the same thing happening with furniture and porcelain, though if you bought reproduction furniture he doubts it would go up in value in the same way.

Recently, Mr Collins sold one copy of an 18th century painting for pounds 3,400. It had gone for pounds 800 10 months earlier, he says. "In the near future, Christie's and the others will run out of things of consequence," he predicts. "What were regarded a few years ago as lesser works are now regarded as quality." As the supply of good originals dries up further, so the market in reproductions will strengthen still further, he believes.

While Mr Collins was at Christie's, he was in charge of a sale of the work of Tom Keating, whose work had been passed off as original Turner, Samuel Palmer and Constable. Keating's fakes were for a short time in demand for themselves, with one selling for pounds 25,000 but since then, as the notoriety passed, their value has fallen.

Other fakes are almost worthless. "There are an awful lot of fakes around," says Ms Beckett. "About 50 per cent of art is not quite right, not necessarily because they are out and out fakes but because they are tampered with in some way or another. Often you get paintings restored, and people are quiet about it, which can affect values."

Ms Stockdale says that there are thousands of fakes coming into the country each year, rolling off production lines, possibly even painted by machine. "Modern reproductions are coming out of the Middle East, equivalent to painting by numbers, and sold in the private market. They are done to incredibly high standards and will fool people who don't know. People have been faking for hundreds of years and will continue to do so. Many works are intended to deceive and should be avoided. Some people will take a print and put paint and varnish over the paper." Even some auction houses are being deceived by the better quality fakes, warns Ms Stockdale, with worthless pieces selling for hundreds or even thousands of pounds. She adds: "People who have pounds 1,000 to spare could buy a very good Victorian original painting, not a reproduction."

Legitimate copies, such as those produced by the Canals studio, are sold together with certification of origin, and the back should also carry the sign, Estudio Miguel Canals.