Earlier this summer, the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam unveiled a bold new outreach and fundraising initiative. Looking to access a broader (and less art-specific) audience, the museum has scheduled a traveling pop-up exhibition that will be making its way to luxury malls throughout the United States. That’s right! Starting October 14th, you’ll finally get to admire some of Van Gogh’s greatest hits, including Sunflowers and Bedroom up close and personal, right after buying a new replacement iPhone charger at the Apple store. Now we know what you’re thinking: Are they really about to ship a suite of priceless Van Gogh masterpieces (which are consistently among some of the most expensive works sold at auction) to be shown, as Artnet cheekily suggests, “in a kiosk next to Sunglass Hut?”
Of course not—they’re installing 3D-printed reproductions instead! Developed in conjunction with Kodak, these “reliefography” duplicates are made utilizing state-of-the-art imaging technologies. According to the website, in order to replicate the paint’s texture, experts “apply a specially developed molding textile to the surfaces of the paintings to recreate the surface shape of every individual brushstroke with microscopic accuracy.” From there, the work is scanned and printed onto a canvas surface that bears the impressions of the original work. The results are pieces that are identical to the very brushstroke and are, to the undiscerning eye, virtually indistinguishable from their source. Even the canvases are similar to the ones Van Gogh used.
And while it may seem strange for the Van Gogh Museum to select high-end shopping malls, of all places, to host this traveling clone show of masterpieces, it actually makes perfect sense. Though billed as an initiative that’s ostensibly meant to educate the masses, the pop-ups are in fact a marketing scheme to promote the sale of these same 3D-printed replicas. Which means for around $25,000 a pop, you can fool your culturally naive friends, colleagues, and hard-to-impress in-laws into thinking you own an actual Van Gogh! Created as a limited edition of 260 canvases, the collection offers nine different works, each so microscopically identical to the real thing, there’s an authentication seal for easy differentiation. “People everywhere can now acquire these works,” promotes the website, “and experience their full power."
While that $25,000 price point is a pretty penny less than what an actual Van Gogh will cost you (his works range from $137 million at their most expensive to $386,500), it’s a substantial challenge trying to imagine who might buy something like this. Luxury mall or not, $25,000 is still a high price to pay for something that could theoretically be considered a very high-tech and institutionally ordained knock-off.
Besides, there are a plethora of services out there like OverstockArt.com where you can order a copy of any Van Gogh (or any other major artist, for that matter) in a custom size and hand-painted by artists in “a factory based in the Shanghai Free-Trade Zone,” according to the company’s Wikipedia page. Granted, these experiences do not offer the machine-precision and consistency that $25,000’s worth of reliefography will get you. Online consumer reviews range from “We love the artwork of Manet and Renior your Artist duplicated. We still smell the oil from the paintings as a reminder of your excellence,” to “We got our ‘Art’ from them today. What a piece of garbage. Truly awful quality—blurry with no definition, colors are washed out. This probably cost them $2 in some foreign country, and they were selling it for over $200. I would be ashamed to hang this anywhere.”
There was even one disgruntled Overstock Art reviewer who had purchased over $1000 worth of facsimiles hoping to resell them on the art market, only to realize that the works had no actual market value. Which brings up an interesting query: While it seems obvious that these hundred-dollar bargain canvases are not the best stock for a prospective art flipper, how would these official 3D-printed Van Gogh replicas fare on the market?
Unfortunately, auction houses are not able to comment on pieces that have not yet been brought to sale but there are slightly similar precedents for these types of posthumous reproductions. Just this past January, for example, Phillips sold a silkscreen copy of Jean-Michel Basquiat’s Head from a 2001 edition of 85 for $100,000. In order to differentiate these reproductions from actual Jean-Michel Basquiat works, these prints are credited to “After Jean-Michel Basquiat” and are products of his estate. The Andy Warhol Foundation grants licensing to Warhol’s images similarly, with his own suite of “After Andy Warhol” reproductions, though his are generally sold at a significantly lower price mark (Artspace has prints available starting at $518, for example).
There’s a decent chance that these cutting-edge Van Goghs may be treated with similar esteem on the secondary market. Though the commercial landscape is significantly different here in the United States, when the Van Gogh Museum first launched their 3D-printed replicant campaign in malls in Hong Kong five years ago, they were tremendously successful, with many on-site purchases made right there at the mall. It’s not terribly dissimilar to buying a Chaps brand jacket—sure, it’s not Ralph Lauren Collection or Ralph Lauren Purple label but it’s still within the family and at a price you can afford!
Still, the Western art market does have a real thing about authenticity, particularly when it comes to Impressionist and Modern art in a way that China doesn’t. Not to mention, both Warhol and Basquiat were working at a time when the relationship between authenticity, art, and reproduction were being dramatically altered and were at the fore of pushing its boundaries. One could easily see Warhol being totally fine, if not thrilled that his works are being continuously reproduced for the masses after his death. But Van Gogh?
Prefacing Walter Benjamin’s seminal 1935 text, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is an excerpt from the French poet Paul Valéry, from his essay, The Conquest of Ubiquity, which reads, “For the last twenty years neither matter nor space nor time has been what it was from time immemorial. We must expect great innovations to transform the entire technique of the arts, thereby affecting artistic invention itself and perhaps even bringing about an amazing change in our very notion of art.” It’ll be fascinating to see if there is an American market for these official, mall-bound, industrial reproductions. If they do sell, it’ll indicate an unprecedented art buyer—one that we are hard pressed to even imagine. It could also indicate further shifting attitudes towards the value of authenticity in our hyper-capitalist society—one that grants increasing power to branding as a primary source of aura. Still, if it helps rake in an extra couple million for these foundations and institutions to continue to operate and to preserve the actual masterpieces, perhaps ultimately, the sale of these works may do more good than harm for the art world as a whole. Besides, it’s a way more impressive merch product than a coaster set.