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Art’s value is in the eye of the beholder

Published: Monday, Oct. 22, 2012 11:12 a.m. CDT

In a recent art heist from a Dutch museum, thieves got away with a Picasso, a Monet, a few Gauguins and Matisses. But, fortunately, they didn’t get away with anything of value.

There is simply no way to sell stolen art that is this famous. Respectable collectors won’t touch the stuff and would gladly turn in the thieves; the criminals can’t trust disreputable collectors — no honor among thieves and all that.

The entire exercise of art theft is a waste of everyone’s time and money. The paintings are usually recovered; the thieves are arrested, poorer than they were when they started; and there’s a good chance the art itself is damaged or destroyed in the process.

So I wondered to my artistic friend Lars why a museum would bother to hang an original piece of art. Why not just put a photo of the painting in a frame? What’s the difference? We’d still be seeing the same picture.

Lars was appalled. “There’s nothing like seeing the original,” he said.

“But modern digital photography could duplicate any painting, stroke for stroke, and even show the texture of the paint, the tiny crackling, the overstrokes,” I explained. “The museum could hang an exact duplicate. What’s the difference?”

He explained to me that I was a bourgeois barbarian and a fool.

“That’s a little harsh. ‘Exact duplicate’ may be redundant, but lots of smart people say it.”

“That’s not what I’m talking about,” Lars vented. “An original painting has value; the copy does not. No matter how good it is, the copy is a counterfeit.”

I don’t buy it. If a piece of art is good enough to hang in a museum, if it’s good enough for you to fly to Rome or Paris to see, isn’t an inexpensive copy of it in your home just as good? Are the colors any different? Is the composition any different? Is the size any different? Is the inspiration any different? If you put it in a gilded frame exactly like the one in the museum, could anyone tell the difference?

The only thing that would actually be different is the value. But if price is what makes a painting worthy, why don’t people simply hang money on their walls?

“Ohhh, did you see that? He has $100 million hanging on his living room wall. Isn’t it beautiful? Don’t you love the green color, the shape of the bills?”

“I hear it’s all counterfeit bills.”

“Ewwww! It’s the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen. How vulgar. The original is soooo much better!”

When I hear about experts spending years trying to figure out if a work by Leonardo da Vinci is real or a fake, I have to wonder: What’s the difference? If it is so similar that even the experts can’t tell after a week or two whether it’s a fake, it must be pretty good. What they’re arguing about after that is not art, but price. Who is bourgeois now?

If it ever turns out that “Mona Lisa” in the Louvre is a fake, will all the millions of tourists feel duped? “I went all the way to Paris to see that piece of junk? I want my money back,” as if looking at a work of art behind bullet-, bomb-, fire- and theft-proof glass is better than looking at a copy.

Me, I like the fakes. You don’t have to insure them, and you don’t have to worry about someone stealing them. The only reason people know all my Picassos, Monets, van Goghs and Gauguins are fake is that they know I’m not a billionaire.

But even if I were, is that how I’d spend my money? A $50 million painting could send a lot of kids to college, it could buy a lot of medicine, it could help people who are out of work, it could change a lot of lives. That’s something you can’t fake or steal. It’s a work of art.

Jim Mullen’s newest book is called “Kill Me, Elmo: The Holiday Depression Fun Book.” You can reach him at JimMullenBooks.com.

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