In February London’s Dulwich Picture Gallery replaced one of its paintings with a £70 copy painted by Meisheng Oil Painting Manufacture Co in Xiamen, China. This week it unveiled the replica was of ‘Young Woman’ by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. An impressive 10 per cent of visitors picked it out from the 270 paintings on show. The second choice was a recently restored Ruben’s portrait that attracted six per cent of votes.
The project,’Made in China’ was organised by Doug Fishbone, an American conceptual artist living and working in London. Fishbone wanted to explore if a replica can be taken as an original without question. His project boosted visitor numbers to England’s oldest public gallery (the gallery is also famous for having had the same Rembrandt – an early Portrait of Jacob de Gheyn III, stolen and returned four times). It has highlighted how easy it is to get a fairly credible replica. (Reputable companies like Meisheng produce different-sized, clearly labelled replica works).
Although Fishbone replicated an 18th Century Painting, Robert Wittman, the founder of the FBI’s National Art Team, now a consultant, says that artists like Rothko, Pollock, Picasso, Dali, Miro and Chagall are more frequent targets.
“It’s got to smell right: the provenance has got to be correct, there’s got to be a history of the piece, and you should stay away from things that have never been seen before,” says Wittman.
“Is it possible that somewhere there’s a Jackson Pollock that nobody’s seen? Of course it is, but if you find it and there’s no history to it, how do you prove he did it? The paints he used are still available; the old canvas from that time is still available,” he adds. “You may be able to say there’s nothing wrong with the painting but that doesn’t mean it is right.”