The Painting Thieves 

copyright 1998, James Waldron Design, all rights reserved 

Patong Beach, Phuket, Thailand
N O8 degrees 00.384'
E 98 degrees 17.766'

Is it art? Is it theft? Is it simply a copy shop using very low-tech equipment? Tucked-in amongst the rows of t-shirt, watch, and curio vendors at resort the of Patong Beach in Thailand, there are a handful of specialty art galleries. Their specialty is copying famous works of art on canvas. They repaint paintings. 

Sure to spoil the breakfast of any big-city art curator, is the sight of a white pegboard wall covered with full-size stretched and framed oil paintings from all the masters of art. Matisse, Van Gogh, Hopper, Warhol, you name it, or better yet, request one. They'll custom paint it for you in about three days. Average price? About one-hundred twenty-five bucks.

Curious about the business, I stopped in at the largest of the shops, The Artist Studio, and spoke to Heather Armstrong, one of the Gallery Managers to find out the story. The Artist Studio is the largest volume reproduction house in Thailand, currently producing about 200 oil paintings a month. The gallery was founded by Thai native Sumpoaw Sarekul and her painter husband fifteen years ago in Kosomui. Sarekul's husband was killed in an automobile wreck two years later, and two years ago the business moved to Phuket, where there is a larger volume of wealthier tourists.

Armstrong explained the process. The studio employs 22 local artists, each of whom has an art school degree and 5-6 years experience at other copy galleries. The painters are supplied with English-made oil paints and Italian canvases, and have access to the studios most valuable asset, the largest collection of art books amongst the gallery's competitors.

There is a stock of better-selling paintings on hand, but a custom order can be requested with a fifty-per-cent deposit. A few days later the customer returns and, with the agreement of the staff on quality, pays the remaining money and trundles off with their new possession. The painter, in return, is paid between 10 and 30 percent of the sale price, as well as receiving room and board from the studio. Even though the painters can sell their own work through the gallery, few do, working instead on the items that will guarantee them a paycheck.

As a way to feed themselves, working in a copy gallery is a pretty good job for the resident painters. The best artists make up to 100,000 baht per month (about $2800 US) Not bad in a town where the average hotel-worker makes 5,000 baht. Many of the painters specialize. One artist does all the Lichtenstein, one only Dalis, which cost extra because of their complexity. No one does Bosch, too much work. 

So what sells best? Not my personal favorites, but Tamara de Lempicka, Salvador Dali and Botero lead the list. Many Magritte and Van Gogh leave the showrooms, but two contemporary artists: Daniel Gasser from Switzerland and Scottish painter Jack Vitriano are current hot sellers. Vitriano is a popular emerging name in the U.K. and many English tourists pass through Patong Beach. Gasser is especially popular with German tourists. "Why," I asked Armstrong. "This is a vast generalization, but Germans love blue paintings. Anything blue sells." It could also be that a copy of Van Gogh in your living room would obviously be a fake, but with a still-living artist, you might be able to fool your friends.

Okay, what about the legal and ethical ramifications of making original oil-paint copies of original oil paintings? Ms. Armstrong explained that it is legal if the painter has been dead over 50 years, even copying the signature. With contemporary artists, the painting has to be subtly different, and the gallery can not represent the work as original. They don't.

Why should I buy a copy? "Well," Heather explains, "I think we actually introduce some people to the medium of painting. And it's an interesting souvenir of your trip to Thailand. Everything here is a copy. You can buy Nike sweatpants, Dolce and Gabbana handbags. Instead, anyone can own a beautiful oil painting. And cheap." 

The studio also has a growing reputation with members of the legitimate art world in Europe. Some curators have commissioned copies of their most valuable works for display in poor-security venues. Armstrong told a story of an Dutch couple who had a painting for twenty years which they were forced to return to the painters  family when he died. They missed the painting so much the Artist Studio made them a copy they were very pleased with.

On the negative side she replies, "We are copying intellectual property. For contemporary artists our reproductions have the potential to dilute the worth of their work. But on the other hand, the copies may actually increase their exposure." 

Forgery has been around since art began. Who really knows if that Rembrandt in the Met was created by the master or one of his employees. I suppose I'd much rather have a good oil-and-canvas reproduction hanging in my apartment than the tired, old exhibition poster residing there now. But even though I had my eye on a lovely Edward Hopper in the gallery I left empty-handed. It wouldn't fit in my backpack.

If you'd like to know more about the Artist Studio, or just want to send them some hate mail, check out their web site at:

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© (1998) James Waldron Design --