PAI Opinion: Replicas, telling the honest truth

Circle of Michael Sweerts, Plague in an Ancient City. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

The past year has seen Sotheby’s sell da Vinci’s Mona Lisa twice. Once in New York, for $1.7m and once in Paris for €552,500.

Of course, the original is hanging sound in the Louvre. These have been copies of the masterpiece, for which the auctioneer has seen a steady increase in demand since 2012.      
In the same way that students will labour, for days, sketching the Parthenon or the Leaning Tower of Pisa; or musicians will perform song covers by the greats, artists have historically created replicas of Old Master paintings.

While the practice of profiting from a Rembrandt or da Vinci replica has become a serious cause for concern in the art world, ethically reproducing a master’s painting is to be welcomed.

Many Western and Asian master artists worked through the studio system, taking on in-house apprentices, essentially paid interns, to handle aspects of the actual painting. The mark of good assistants was their ability to paint indistinguishably from the master.

And, more often than not, if a master thought their work was exceptional, students were asked to emulate the work for practice – according to experts.

There are several upsides to copies of masterpieces. Seven of which – such as a 17th century reproduction of the Mona Lisa – are being offered in a Sotheby’s sale in New York this week. First, they are available at far more reasonable prices – $60,000 – $80,000 estimated for the Mona Lisa – meaning that more collectors at the nascent end of the market can benefit. In any event, it’s somewhat unlikely that the Louvre will be offering its copy on the market any time soon.

Next, if bought through a verified seller, collectors will walk away with the knowledge that they have an honest copy. One where provenance is beyond doubt. The Van Gogh Museum’s Edition Collection is one such example. Here, original works are digitally reproduced down to the smallest details and certified by a museum curator.

Vincent van Gogh himself was convinced of the usefulness of reproducing his work, as he wrote in a letter to his brother Theo, in 1882:

I wrote to you in my last letter about a plan for making prints for the people, is something to which I hope you’ll give some thought one day.”

After all, the true mark of an outstanding work of art is to see it far outlive its time.

Yesterday has been covered by more than 3,000 musicians (Elvis and Marvin Gaye included), but you will still remember the Beatles track as the original.