Mona Lisa for $ 60K? The curious market of replicas of old masters

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Written by Oscar Holland, CNN

To an inexperienced eye, the “Mona Lisa” on auction at Sotheby’s next week is indistinguishable from its namesake hanging in the Louvre.

The columns painted on both sides of the canvas are only a small homage that this is not the original of Leonardo da Vinci. But there is another more obvious difference: the price.

Produced during the 1600s, perhaps more than a century after Leonardo’s death, this “Mona Lisa” is expected to sell for $ 60,000 to $ 80,000. And in a very unusual move, Sotheby’s has included a series of six other copies Thursday sale.

Among these are reproductions of other iconic works, including Caravaggio’s “Medusa” and Hieronymus Bosch’s triptych “The garden of earthly delights”. Versions of works by other old masters – the great masters of 19th century European art – such as Diego Velázquez and Correggio will also go under the hammer.

A 19th-century copy of Diego Velázquez’s “Triumph of Bacchus” has a low estimate of just $ 10,000 on Thursday’s sale. Credit: SOTHEBY’S

Copies may be associated with fraud in the art world, but there are many legitimate reasons why they were made, according to Christopher Apostle, senior vice president and chief of the Old Masters at Sotheby’s.

“Historically speaking, a copy was not necessarily viewed as negatively as it could have been later,” he said on the phone from New York, where the sale is taking place. “We know that collectors of famous paintings hired specific artists to create copies that they could gift or hang in other residences.”

As early as the 20th century, reproducing Renaissance or Baroque masterpieces was also a common part of formal artistic training, helping students perfect their color, nuances and composition, said Apostle. Some replicas were even produced by the students themselves of the original artists. Proteges and trainees were often allowed to copy their masters’ work, even if only once had they acquired the skill necessary to do it justice.

A 19th or 20th century copy of the triptych of Hieronymus Bosch “The garden of earthly delights”. Credit: SOTHEBY’S

“Very often, a copy was the only way an artist could divulge a famous or successful composition,” said Apostle. “The artists themselves could organize a seminar, if they thought ‘wow, I really took a ride home with this particular composition’, and their students would then make replicas.”

The seven paintings that go under the hammer on Thursday are all what the Apostle calls “honest copies” (according to the auction catalog, these works were “rarely intended to deceive potential buyers”). But their stories and closeness to the originals differ greatly.

Most were painted after the life of the original artists, although in the case of another copy of Leonardo for sale, “Saint Jerome Praying in the Wilderness”, only for a few decades. The aforementioned Bosch triptych, meanwhile, could have been painted recently until the 20th century.

But the oldest of the works put up for auction, a copy of Michael Sweerts’s “Plague in an Ancient City” is attributed to someone in the direct circle of the Flemish painter, although little is known about the copyist.

A copy of Michael Sweerts’ “plague in an ancient city” is attributed to someone in the painter’s immediate circle. Credit: SOTHEBY’S

Although much cheaper than the originals, copies can still attract large sums on the art market. Just last year, Sotheby’s oversaw the sale of a different “Mona Lisa” for almost $ 1.7 million, which the auctioneer believes to be a record for a copy.

However, Sotheby’s hopes that relatively low prices will attract a new type of collector. The apostle said that copies can serve as an accessible way in the often extortionist world of ancient masters. A 19th-century copy of Velázquez’s “Triumph of Bacchus”, for example, has a low estimate of just $ 10,000 on sale since Thursday.

“As our market becomes more global and we get more buyers from places like Asia and other emerging markets, I think a copy is a very acceptable starting point,” said Apostle. “They can buy their Leonardo or their Caravaggio at a price that does not reflect an original.”

Sotheby’s believes this is the only known scale replica of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Saint Jerome praying in the desert”. Credit: SOTHEBY’S

As for whether they can be a worthwhile investment, UK-based art consultant Tim Warner-Johnson has recommended that we distinguish between copies of “truly iconic” paintings, such as the “Mona Lisa” and lesser-known images.

“The more iconic an image, the wiser the purchase will be,” he said in a telephone interview, adding that, as in any painting, the quality and condition of the work should still be the “basis” of the a collector.

“The other consideration is how close the copy is over time,” he said. “So if he’s a Leonardo, it would be wonderful to have a copy of Leonardo’s time – much better than having one from the 19th century, for example.”

But Warner-Johnson, who worked at Christie’s before founding his own art consulting firm, warned that the auction could attract unexpected buyers, who could inflate prices. Instead of adding Old Master or investment portfolios to their collections, potential buyers could purchase the works for personal reasons, he suggested.

“You would probably bid against someone who is making a one-off purchase and not thinking in terms of investment,” he explained. “So they probably would have passed you at the auction.

“If I had a client who collected works by Leonardo’s pupils, I could consider recommending a good copy of a Leonardo to adapt to that collection. But for a” Gioconda “you will probably compete with people who will spend far more than you would recommend to someone to spend: people who only want an iconic image “.

A copy of Caravaggio’s “Medusa” has an auction estimate of between $ 70,000 and $ 90,000. Credit: SOTHEBY’S

The apostle, although not an owner, can attest to the appeal to have an old master on the wall – he kept a copy of Caravaggio’s tortured “Medusa” in his office at Sotheby’s in the weeks leading up to the auction.

“I hung it up there because I want to scare people,” he joked. “It’s a great image. They can be a lot of fun. I think they are today – just as they were in the 16th and 17th centuries for the original owners – signifiers of a type of culture and love for artists.

“The fact that you have a very famous image of Velázquez on your wall shows that you appreciate his painting and composition, so I think that part of the charm attracts the original reason why these paintings were made.

“Living with Bosch would be fantastic,” he added. “You could put it on your bed or something – it’s an infinitely fascinating creation.”

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