The Dulwich picture gallery is to set the public, and any art critics with the nerve, a potentially mortifying challenge. A £120 replica of a priceless painting, commissioned online from a Chinese studio which churns out masterpieces from any period and style, will be hung in the genuine frame alongside the gallery’s collection of dazzling Old Master paintings this spring. The public and art experts will then be invited to spot the fake.
“The replica is excellent quality, and when it arrived we were delighted with it – but when I put the two side by side, it was a very interesting experiment. The difference was instantly apparent,” said senior curator Xavier Bray.
Dulwich, the world’s oldest purpose-built public gallery, with works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Tiepolo, Murillo and Poussin, is giving no hints about the size, date or subject of the painting. However, the price may be a clue: the Chinese studios charge according to the scale and complexity of the works, as the original artists did, and Doug Fishbone, the artist whose inspiration the Made In China project is, managed to argue the price down from about £150.
The painting was made by the Meishing Oil Painting Manufacture Company, where 150 artists, many art students funding their own work, toil in the style of Botticelli, Van Gogh or Picasso, for clients from across the world. Strictly speaking, the works are not fakes, since the studios are usually careful to change the size slightly from the originals. Fujian province now has hundreds of studios turning out such paintings, with the village of Dafen alone estimated to produce 5m replicas a year.
Fishbone and Bray hope to visit the studio and meet the artist who made their picture, but deliberately commissioned it online, emailing the highest-resolution photograph they could create of the original, and receiving their new work by post.
“This is the way these pictures are now commissioned, so we wanted to follow it precisely,” said Fishbone, a US-born, London-trained artist whose serious work often includes deliberate jokes. “It’s not just a ‘Hey, spot the fake’ stunt – it raises serious issues of how we view, appreciate and value art. Hanging it at Dulwich gives our picture some provenance, and it’s interesting to see if that changes its value.”
It is also, he admits, quite funny. He wants the shop to sell T-shirts bearing the confession “I failed to spot the replica”.
The collection was put together in the late 18th century by the art dealers Noel Desenfans and Sir Francis Bourgeois, who bought shiploads of paintings to form a royal collection for the king of Poland. By the time it was complete, neither the king nor his country still existed. Instead, the collection was left to Dulwich College, and housed in a gallery designed by Sir John Soane.
Although the collection includes scores of undisputed masterpieces – including a little Rembrandt with the dubious title of the most stolen picture in the world – Ian Dejardin, the gallery’s director, also cares for many works bought as genuine but later downgraded.