Psst! Do you want to buy a high-priced, hand-painted, legal copy of a masterpiece?


Visually feasting on the Monet "legal fake masterpiece" placed before her, prospective buyer Dorothy Starr praises the "great detail" and trueness to "light and shadow" in the hand-painted copy.

Then she's asked how she likes the price.

"I don't know the price," she says.

The price is $5,500.

A moment of silence. A re-evaluation of light and shadow.

"Are they nuts?" Ms. Starr whispers.

If buying original art is an esoteric science on a par with, say, used-car shopping, buying fake art can be even trickier. Are fakes legal? How do you know if they're good? What's a fair price?

Reproductions of famous paintings -- copied brush stroke by brush stroke down to the very signatures of the great masters -- are almost as readily available today as Elvises on black velvet.

In fact, many art experts would equate the two. No true art collector would buy a fake Renoir, says Diane Camber, director of the Bass Museum in Miami Beach. "Its only value would be for interior decorating."

But for those who long for a Botero behind the Barca-lounger, or who feel on safer ground with knockoffs of golden oldies than they would with modern art, prices for fakes can climb as high as those for lesser-known originals.

Such were the discoveries browsers made at a show and sale of 55 fake masterpieces at the affluent Williams Island condo resort in North Miami Beach.

Bogus Van Goghs for $5,500. Chagalls for $4,500. Gaugins for $5,200. Even a Leonardo da Vinci, for $4,900.

These "fabulous fakes" were brought by Brigitte Herzog, a Swiss-German entrepreneur, who is embarking on a U.S. sweep -- from Miami to Aspen to New York to Dallas -- in search of faux art lovers.

But fake masterpieces thrived long before Ms. Herzog's tour. They appeared in New York shops about a year and a half ago, says Virgilia Pancoast, director of authentication for the International Foundation for Art Research.

Now Ms. Pancoast finds them everywhere. She hates them. "You can buy very good original art for the same price," she says.

In South Florida, artist Marvin Steel paints fake masterpieces at his Coconut Creek studio for people, he says, who don't like modern art and want paintings they can understand: paintings of flowers, for example, that look like flowers.

Mr. Steel, like many artists, sharpened his skills by copying the great masters as a student. He studied under European painters and lived in Madrid, where he specialized in the style of 17th-century painter Diego de Velazquez.

Velazquez remains Mr. Steel's favorite artist, although copies of his works are not in great demand. "To make a living," Mr. Steel says, he will reproduce any style, any old master the customer demands.

The artist who is easiest to copy and perhaps most popular among buyers of fakes today is Van Gogh, who Mr. Steel says painted simply and quickly, completing most works in a single afternoon.

To copy, for example, a work from Van Gogh's "Sunflowers" series, Mr. Steel first draws the picture, making precise measurements. Then, on a separate canvas, he experiments with colors.

Mr. Steel says a faithful reproduction cannot be made by using photos. The copier must have studied the artist, viewed his works. "If you painted a Van Gogh from a photograph alone," he says, "you'd have a painting that looked like a photograph."

Once he has perfected his colors, Mr. Steel begins painting. He follows each brush stroke, including "those that go left, and those that go right."

Most copies take about two weeks to finish. Mr. Steel says he charges between $4,000 and $5,000 per work.

But price and technique in the art-copying business vary widely.

The fakes exhibited by Ms. Herzog were painted by a group of European artists working for an Italian company called La Musee Imaginaire. Ms. Herzog's paintings were priced between $4,100 and $6,800, with frames.

Fake paintings are also reproduced by a process that combines computer scanning with brush strokes by actual artists. A laser produces a template, and the artist paints in the colors patch by patch.

Those paintings can sell for between $400 and $2,000, frames included.

Mr. Steel believes most people with a passing knowledge of art can judge the quality of a reproduction. But opinions about the works' valuesvaried wildly.

["When you are buying [this kind of] a reproduction, you are only buying a hand, and the hand of the reproducer, not of the artist, much less the artist's brain, temperament, spirit. If that satisfies you, more power to you," says Baltimore art dealer and collector Constantine Grimaldis.

Another Baltimore dealer and collector, Jorden Nye, said, "There's nothing wrong with it if you're doing it for your own enjoyment and you know what you're getting. But my guess is that it would never appreciate, so it has little or no investment value. Investment, of course, is secondary; you should buy what you love.]

As free champagne flowed at the Williams Island exhibit, tongues loosened, but purse strings remained tied shut. Everyone was a critic, almost no one a buyer.

"Amazing workmanship," said Mark Luxenburg, who recently returned from a tour of museums in New York.

"Very good for what they are," asserted Sylvia Bearon, an artist.

"Terrible," declared Grace Liberoff, a gallery owner.

Others expressed shock that the fakes carried forged signatures. "The artist who copied them ought to sign them," Doris Wolf declared indignantly.

Ms. Herzog emphasizes that she is dealing in legal fakes, and that their suppliers pay royalties to museums when required. There is no intent to mislead. Every painting carries a label on the back that discloses it as a copy.

An FBI spokesman in Washington says 100- or 200-year-old art masterpieces are usually in the public domain, unprotected by copyrights, and reproductions are perfectly legal as long as there is no attempt to defraud.

But Paula Harper, professor of art history at the University of Miami, says, "It seems irresponsible to me to be putting these things into the market."

Ms. Harper says the original sales may be proper, but she wonders about resales years later. "It's possible that someone quite gullible could believe he's getting a Renoir for $10,000," she says.

According to Ms. Harper, copying art for educational purposes is an old tradition, but making reproductions for commercial purposes and using signatures "make me very, very skeptical. It plays on people's desires to have others think they have an original."

Mr. Steel says he refuses to fake signatures for fear of being sued if the painting is later fraudulently passed as an original. "How would they know that my intention was not to make a forgery?" he says.

Mr. Steel says fake paintings produced by optic scanning can be discerned as copies, but hand-painted fakes pose real problems. "What if someone throws away the original documents of the sale?" he asks.

Such considerations also bothered Ms. Bearon as she surveyed the fake masterpieces at Williams Island.

"I'm too honest," Ms. Bearon says. "I'd feel the same way if I wore a big zircon ring. It might look the same as a diamond, but I'd know it wasn't. I'd rather have a small diamond."

Ms. Camber of the Bass Museum says she sees no harm in trying to make your friends believe you're suddenly a big-time art collector.

But she says your friends probably will have to believe in %J leprechauns and aliens, too, if you hope to fool them into thinking that a Van Gogh "Sunflowers," which sold in 1987 for $39 million, has somehow ended up in your living room.

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