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by Kenneth Lyen

I have a friend who collects Asian art. He has invested much of his earning in buying works of art which adorn his mansion.

"How do you know you aren’t buying fakes?" I once asked him rather undiplomatically.

"You never know for sure," was his answer.

He elaborated that Chinese paintings and pottery can be easily forged, and it is impossible to distinguish the real from the imitation.

Luckily I don’t collect art, because I would be the first to be suckered. Indeed I can boast that I have never bought an original work of art. Not because I don’t appreciate art. I love art. The reasons are I can’t afford it, plus I’m a bit too stingy (I don’t know which comes first).

My artist friends like to give me their art as gifts. I told one artist friend that I would not sell his painting until after he has departed from this world, so that it might fetch a higher price. He never gave me any more paintings. I wonder why?

As a student, I used to own a Leonardo da Vinci Mona Lisa, a van Gogh Sunflower, and a Picasso portrait of a lady. If they were the originals, I would sell them and never work for the rest of my life! Nah, it doesn’t bother me that they weren’t the real paintings. Sour grapes perhaps.

But I’ve learnt to discern what’s a good imitation. You see, not all prints are equal. Some are more equal than others. Over the years, I’ve become a minor connoisseur in spotting good copies.

It is therefore with great interest that I read there is a Museum of Fakes, run by the University of Salerno, Italy, in its Centre for the Study of Forgery. Curator Salvatore Casillo said "We only collect fakes. The better the fake, the better for us." Apparently Italy has a thriving industry of manufacturing fraudulent copies of paintings, books, music, wines, and even special foods. He continued: "It's just that we have a deep and old culture and have built up skills in creating originals and skills in making copies. We're good at both."

Casillo, a specialist in the technology and culture of fakes, started the Salerno centre 14 years ago because forgeries were jeopardising legitimate exports. For example, silver-plated alabaster was threatening the market for genuine worked silver, in which Italy controls about 20 percent of the world market.

The manufacture of forgeries is not a new phenomenon. In fact the ancient Romans copied the even more ancient Greek statues because they were considered more valuable than the Roman ones. As a sort of historical tit for tat, Roman relics were in turn copied during the Renaissance.

During the 19th and 20th century, Roman relics and Renaissance art were forged, and many of them hung for years in museums in the USA and Europe pretending to be the genuine articles.

Nowadays, an artist can make a "decent" living by offering to copy well-known masterpieces. Copycat artist Daniele Donde even held a legitimate exhibition of his forged masterpieces. The going rate for a commissioned copy for, say, Picasso’s "Boy With A Pipe" is $2,500. The original Picasso was auctioned in New York in May 2004 for $104 million, breaking all records.

I’m a bit of an inverted snob. I wear cheap clothes, cheap shoes and a cheap watch. I patronize cheap eateries. I’m known as a cheapskate. So would I have any qualms buying cheap imitation art?