Putting a price on paint… and pixels

When beginning an art collection insurance is important

19/11/18

Digital technology is changing the way we view art, making it difficult to tell originals apart from top-quality reproductions. So what might that mean for the investment market?

Vincent van Gogh’s paintings of sunflowers, cypress trees and pairs of his own boots are among the most famous images in art history, gracing calendars, greetings cards and fridge magnets worldwide. Certain aspects do tend to be lost in reproduction, though – the sheer boldness of his palette, for one; the impasto of his intense brushstrokes, for another.

In 2013, with that in mind, the Van Gogh Museum (VGM) in Amsterdam teamed up with imaging company Fujifilm to create the most sophisticated form of reproduction yet: combining a three-dimensional scan of the Dutchman’s paintings with a high-resolution print. Colour and relief were recreated more accurately than ever before.

Together known as the Relievo Collection, some 260 replicas of nine different VG paintings were made (including The Bedroom from 1888 and Wheatfield under Thunderclouds from 1890). They even came in contemporary rosewood frames – and consensus was that, to most untrained eyes, it was impossible to tell the difference between a Relievo and an original. Promotional exhibitions were held in Hong Kong, Dubai and Los Angeles, and the reproductions went on sale at €25,000 (£22,000) each, providing the museum with a welcome new income stream.

As copying techniques grow ever more sophisticated, however, and the day grows closer when even experts will have a job telling a masterpiece from an ingenious replica, what will that mean for the art market?

This is a different matter from forgery – the nefarious business of fake works being passed off as real ones. Instead we’re asking what value an artist’s original will have when it is indistinguishable from, and ostensibly offers nothing more than, its reproductions? Is it too far-fetched to suggest that the whole art market will collapse?

In the case of the Relievos, Axel Rüger, the VGM’s director, dismissed such concerns; they “cater to a distinct market”, he said. Jop Ubbens, head of Christie’s in Amsterdam, echoed this, insisting “I don’t see any harm to rich Van Gogh collectors globally”.

Certainly, £22,000 is a far cry from the prices paid for Van Gogh paintings at recent auctions: including the £24.2m for Le moissonneur (d’après Millet) at Christie’s in London earlier this summer. Or the $50m and $66.3m respectively for Landscape Under a Stormy Sky and Les Alyscamps, at Sotheby’s in New York in 2015.

In a way, replicas aren’t too dissimilar to limited-edition prints. The latter – a fixed number of print reproductions of an art work, authenticated and often signed by the artist – allow those of relatively modest means to become collectors. They can offer decent economic returns, too, with prices for limited editions tending to reflect those for an artist generally. (The graffiti artist Banksy offers an interesting example: in 2004 he commissioned 150 prints based on the mural he’d painted in East London, Girl with Red Balloon. Initially these were available at £150 each; last year, one of them sold at auction for £69,000.)

There’s a clear difference, though, between print versions of originals and straight-up duplications (such as the Relievos are). The German cultural theorist Walter Benjamin is worth mentioning at this point, specifically his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Though penned in 1936, it still has resonance today. Benjamin argued that the mass media irrevocably changed society’s way of experiencing art – towards seeing reproductions rather than originals (something that rings ever more true in the 21st-century digital age).

He added, however, that originals were superior, because they have a sort of innate magical quality he called “aura” – which reproductions never manage (and which he also described as a “sphere of authenticity”). To some ears, such talk might sound airy and conceptual, but there’s much to suggest that the art world adheres to it.

Take two of the world’s most recognisable paintings: Mona Lisa by Leonardo da Vinci and The Scream by Edvard Munch. The international crowds that mob the former at the Musée du Louvre, as if it were a rock star, suggest our fascination with the original has only increased as a result of endless reproductions. As for The Scream, Munch actually painted four versions; the only one in private hands sold for $119.9m at Sotheby’s in 2012, at the time a world-record price for an art work at auction. This hardly suggests a market for original masterpieces in crisis.

It’s hard to predict how things will pan out. Technology continues to develop apace. At the National Gallery’s Michelangelo & Sebastiano exhibition earlier this year, a whole chapel – the Borgherini, from Rome’s San Pietro in Montorio church – was convincingly recreated in 3D. The discernible difference between originals and replicas grows ever smaller; yet, veneration for the former remains great.

For now, the “aura” of original art work remains intact. But with prices at the top end of the art market continuing to rise (the world-record auction price now being $179.4m, for Picasso’s Les femmes d'Alger – Version 'O'), these are high stakes indeed.

Keep it covered

When beginning an art collection, from originals or duplications, insurance is important. “The source and quality of the copy will dictate the value of the work but, as with originals, buyers should keep a keen eye on the market to check in case their purchased work increases in value,” says Amanda Harman of Aon.

Was that the hypothesis behind the collection?

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