Can't afford a Monet? Try a replica painted by hand or machine

There's a history behind Leonardo da Vinci's famed "Mona Lisa" worthy of a caper in "The Pink Panther." The painting was stolen for the third time in 1911 and recovered in 1913.

Before it was found, though, eight copies had been made and sold to collectors, all of whom believed they had purchased the real thing.

These shady transactions foreshadowed a more honest practice to come. Why would someone choose to buy a work of art that could never be sold or even shown to friends?

"Nobody can afford to buy an original Monet or Rembrandt, but a lot of people want something that is closer to the original than a poster...," says Gregory Panjian, president of The Masters Collection, an art-replica company in Somersville, Conn. "With a replica, you get to enjoy a multimillion-dollar painting ... in your own home or office, and at a very affordable price."

Replicas are painted by hand on canvas from the original, either by an artist or a high-tech machine. Many of the artists have studied the Old Masters, and their copies employ the same types of paint used by the original creators. Some works include historically accurate frames.

These copies sell for between $300 to $3,000, depending upon the size of the picture, the work to be copied, and whether the picture has been antiqued and crackled to give it an aged look.

Even the high-tech methods still involve artists. In one process poster prints of famous works are chemically treated to transfer their pigment to canvas. Artists then add brushstrokes in clear acrylic, following the lines of the image using the original artist's style.

Other techniques include Polaroid reproductions that use a room-sized camera with strips of film as large as the paintings in order not to lose any detail. In addition, electronic imaging - computers and lasers that correct colors at more than 90,000 points per square inch - are employed.

With out-of-reach prices for much original artwork, along with the increasing interest in famous paintings, the field of art copies is growing. Rarely are these replicas sold at art galleries; more often, individuals purchase them through catalogs or at decorator shops.

Replicas are used by art schools as well, according to Lynn Bonser, president of Replica Masterpieces in Fogelsville, Penn.

"Because these works are on canvas rather than on paper," Ms. Bonser says, "there is a three-dimensional quality making it closer to the feeling of the original."

There is also less need for protective glass. "Even with nonglare glass, if you look at the work from any other vantage point than straight on, the work looks distorted and the colors are dulled," Bonser notes.

The making of art copies is not new. As part of their training, centuries of artists have copied the work of renowned masters and, during the 17th and 18th centuries, local artists in Italy made copies of the country's most famous pictures as souvenir items for English and French tourists taking the "grand tour."

And copying another artist's work is perfectly legal. Copyright law only protects an artist's image until the time of death plus 50 years. There is little chance that these works would be fraudulently offered for sale as originals, since the artists in question and their copied works are too well known to avoid suspicion.

Artists who create copies rarely wish for attention for this type of work, but it is a way to pay the rent until their own work garners notice and generates income. Then they can dream that one day their originals will be studied and copied as they once studied and copied the Old Masters.

*Most copies of paintings are sold through companies that call upon a network of artists to reproduce masterpieces. Heritage House in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. (800-448-4583, www.heritagehouse.com) is one of the largest, offering copies of paintings by artists such as Monet, Georgia O'Keeffe, Picasso, and Van Gogh.

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