The New York Times

The Master of Fake Masterpieces

THE painting, ”Après le Bain,” is clearly a Renoir; a rosy-cheeked, plump woman kneels by a pond, her eyes gracefully downcast as she dries herself with a cloth. In the lower right corner is Renoir’s signature. The price tag: $2,800.

The work hangs alongside van Goghs, Rembrandts, Monets and Breughels, all of them fake, in a new gallery here called Art bis Club, in the ultrabourgeois 16th arrondissement.

Sitting at a desk next to the faux Renoir and cutting a dapper figure in a black turtleneck and white wool blazer, Christophe D. Petyt, a 33-year-old Frenchman, explained how his gallery came about. In 1991 he was a business student with no interest in art when he saw a photo of van Gogh’s ”Mademoiselle Ravoux.” He wanted it on his wall, so he commissioned a friend studying at the École des Beaux-Arts to paint a copy. By the next year Mr. Petyt had hired his friend to duplicate 20 more major works of art, and with two associates he convinced the Royal Mansour hotel in Casablanca to put on an exhibition. All the paintings were sold, he said, and 60 more ordered.

Since then Mr. Petyt has toured his collection to luxury hotels around the world, in jet-set markets like Miami, Dubai and St. Tropez. He has commissioned 7,500 copies and sold more than half of them. In 2001 he was cited by the Guinness Book of World Records as having the ”largest collection of fake masterpieces.”

He has a stable of 82 artists, or maîtres copistes, in different countries and with widely varying profiles. He attributed a dramatic J. M. W. Turner, ”The Burning of the Houses of Lords and Commons,” to Ultra Violet, of Andy Warhol fame. The most colorful of the copy artists is Jean Müller, a Swiss who dresses like Salvador Dalí — he even has the mustache — and whose canvases have visited every period from Renaissance to Impressionist. ”I never liked van Gogh until I painted him,” Mr. Müller said by telephone from Lausanne. ”But it’s very sensuous to paint in someone’s style. You feel his rhythms, his brush strokes. By doing van Gogh, I discovered him.”

Mr. Petyt’s faux masterpieces are painted in oil (not acrylic) and faithful to every detail — dimensions, thickness of the paint, even the signature. Many of the canvases are artificially aged, front and back, where the frames are bored with tiny fake worm holes.

In the 1990’s the Toulouse-Lautrec museum in southern France sued one of Mr. Petyt’s colleagues for selling signed fakes. Danièle Devynck, the museum’s curator, explained by telephone: ”Artistic patrimony is fragile. It’s important to avoid confusion, especially in 50 years, when a copy develops a patina of its own.” The French courts ruled that once an artist has been dead for 70 years, his work, including his signature, can be duplicated, as long as the copy is not passed off as an original. Each of Mr. Petyt’s works has a notation on the back stating that it comes from his collection.

But is this art? ”People say it’s not, because there’s no creativity,’ Mr. Petyt said. ”And yet, when someone plays classical music we consider him a genius, though he hasn’t created a thing. Here it’s a question of interpretation, too.”

Most of Mr. Petyt’s clients are not typical art buyers but people drawn to the idea of having a Degas for a few thousand dollars. Many of his paintings go to Arab royals, who buy 30 or 40 at a time to decorate their palaces. Mr. Petyt said his highest-priced painting had been commissioned by a Saudi Arabian prince, who paid nearly $100,000 for an oversize Renoir, ”Le Déjeuner des Canotiers.”

A few of his customers are rich art collectors. Some are replacing an original they are planning to sell or to hide in a safe place; others are unable to get their hands on a particular work and are willing to settle for a copy. None of Mr. Petyt’s moneyed clients are willing to go on the record as owning fakes. One, a French-Costa Rican heir who has decorated his various residences with nothing but copies, spoke on the phone from his home in Marrakesh, Morocco, on condition of anonymity. ”I find it ridiculous to spend $5 million on an original piece of artwork,” he said, ”just to spend the same amount again every 10 years in insurance.” He also said his house guests assumed his artworks were real, and he never suggested otherwise.

That is one reason lesser-known subjects sell better than famous images. A copy of the Mona Lisa gathers dust in the basement of Mr. Petyt’s gallery. ”I finally had it made because everybody wanted to see it,” he said. ”But who would ever buy the thing?”

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