Will accurate 3-D reproductions disrupt art markets?

by on August 26, 2013 at 2:19 pm in Economics, The Arts | Permalink

From Amsterdam:

The Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam has developed high-quality 3D reproductions of some of its finest paintings, with what it describes as the most advanced copying technique ever seen. Axel Rüger, the museum’s director, said: “It really is the next generation of reproductions because they go into the third dimension. If you’re a layman, they are pretty indistinguishable [from the originals]. Of course, if you’re a connoisseur and you look more closely, you can see the difference.”

Each reproduction is priced £22,000 – somewhat more than the cost of a postcard or poster. But the museum is hoping to increase access to pictures which, if they were sold, would go for tens of millions of pounds to Russian oligarchs or American billionaires.

The 3D scanning technique has so far reproduced Almond Blossom(1890), Sunflowers (1889), The Harvest (1888), Wheatfield under Thunderclouds (1890) and Boulevard de Clichy (1887). Further ventures into Van Gogh’s back catalogue are planned.

Over the internet it is hard to tell how good they are, but I would bet $50 I cannot be fooled, not yet at least.  And even if I could be fooled, I wouldn’t pay that much for one.  The article is here, with one photo, and of course Alex and I analyzed this scenario some time ago.

The pointer is from Ted Gioia, one of my favorite people on Twitter.

Sol August 26, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Isn’t “Will you be fooled?” the wrong question to ask? As a normalish citizen, right now the only way I can have a “Van Gogh” on my wall is to have a 2D print, which is just a very crude approximation to what Van Gogh painted. If their 3D copy looks significantly better than that, it is a worthwhile innovation in my book, even if I can tell the difference between it and the original.

Rahul August 26, 2013 at 3:22 pm

“And even if I could be fooled, I wouldn’t pay that much for one “

That essentially confirms signalling-value / snobbishness as the essence of art collection. “I have the real deal” seems a lot more important than “I love looking at this one”.

mpowell August 26, 2013 at 3:37 pm

For a certain sort of art collection, absolutely. This is about putting something on your wall to look at. 22K pounds is way too much for that.

Rahul August 26, 2013 at 4:18 pm

How does a real Van Gogh get its value if not by the pleasure of looking at it?

As an aside, I still cannot fathom the idea of art forgery: If it looked beautiful enough to buy when you thought it was a Rubens how is it any less beautiful now that you discovered it ain’t a Rubens?

To a great extent art valuation seems all about provenance and very little about inherent quality. Even the pleasure a collector derives seems largely associated with provenance.

bob August 26, 2013 at 4:56 pm

There’s a really interesting article in a recent New Yorker about a forger who would donate forgeries to museums all over the country without accepting any kind of remuneration.

eddie August 26, 2013 at 6:41 pm

“Even the pleasure a collector derives seems largely associated with provenance.”

Got it in one.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I own a few animation cels. They come in two kinds: mass-produced to sell to people who want to own an animation cel, and those that were actually used in the production of an animated film (there aren’t any more of these being made now that all of that work is done in software).

I’m only interested in the latter. I don’t think of myself as a snob. It’s just that I appreciate the cel both as an artifact and as an image, and I want to own and display the artifact.

CD August 27, 2013 at 2:23 pm

One small point is that art is also about history and context, about who did what when. A Rubens painting is not just “beauty” in some generalized sense, it’s an episode in a bigger story. Each Hals I see tells me more about Hals, it also tells me something about Vermeer and Rembrandt. So you’re not just seeing the single work in front of you, you’re seeing a whole skein of influences and differences and tradition and change.

What paintings *do* changes dramatically across time and space and you have to learn how to read different genres. Again, this requires multiple examples and seeing key, influential paintings.

Forgery falsifies history. Honest copies should be encouraged – and indeed that’s what art books are for. The logic of my argument so far is that key paintings should be accessible to everyone, and thus there would be great benefit, for purposes of instruction if nothing else, in high-quality 3-D copies of Van Gogh.

That there is snobbishness and ignorance among rich collectors seems obvious: that’s shooting fish in a barrel.

eddie August 26, 2013 at 6:56 pm

“22K pounds is way too much for that.”

This is a great spot for price discrimination. Hopefully in a few years, after everyone who wants to pay 20k for one has bought one, they’ll crank up the volume and start selling them for, say, only ten times the cost of a standard print.

Norman Pfyster August 26, 2013 at 4:32 pm

Or it could signal reverse snobbishness/practicality: the marginal increase from $20 for a print to $30,000 for a 3D print is too much for the increase in viewing pleasure, even for a closer approximation of the original.

AndrewL August 26, 2013 at 3:24 pm

I see it more as a way to make great works of art more accessible to the world. Now everyone in the world dosn’t have to cram into a handful of museums to study fine art, they can go to their local museum/mall/whatever.

Just think, we could have a (or even multiple) museums that could hold an artist’s entire body of work. You can see all of Van Gogh’s paintings in one place at one time! That would be amazing.

JWatts August 26, 2013 at 5:27 pm

I would expect a substantial if art snobs to be openly critical of 3-D prints being widely available to everyone. Probably with lots of comments about the “viewing experience” and “travel to great museums” being critical aspects of their complaints.

albatross August 26, 2013 at 3:40 pm

Given the results on blind testing wine enthusiasts, I’m inclined to wonder how well even the experts will do at distinguishing reproductions from the original. I’m 100% sure that a big majority of experts, given one painting labeled “original” and the other labeled “reproduction,” be able to clearly explain why it’s obvious that the reproduction just isn’t the same as the original. But I’m much less sure that the experts won’t do the same thing, if we switch the signs on the paintings.

DK August 26, 2013 at 7:30 pm

A good analogy would be with MP3. Hardly anyone, including experts, can reliably distinguish quality-compressed files from the originals. And when they do, majority likes compressed sounds better.

3D prints of the art will be as good as the originals for all intents and purposes for the normal art consumer. Excluding bullshit intents and purposes. (Assuming that the color reproduction is faithful – a big assumption considering this is why most 2D prints tends to suck).

Rahul August 27, 2013 at 3:22 am

Most economists would think it silly for consumers to buy local or American products when functionally identical Chinese alternatives were available for much cheaper.

I find it ironic that this logic doesn’t extend to high-art. If provenance means nothing for a LCD-TV why should it for a painting?

Hazel Meade August 26, 2013 at 4:24 pm

No.
if you’ve ever seen a 3-D printed object up close, you know that the material has a grain due to the way it’s printed. You will be able to see the layers in which the 3-D printed material is laid down.

JWatts August 26, 2013 at 5:32 pm

The visible grain is due to the resolution of the printer (and sometimes the printing material). The resolutions are rapidly dropping and once they drop below what’s visible to the human eye at the standard viewing distance, it won’t really matter.

Alex K. August 26, 2013 at 6:37 pm

They are using a different process than the one used in the cheap 3D printers.

3D printing with nano resolution (but very slow production) is available today:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/opph.201290041/pdf

Slocum August 26, 2013 at 4:25 pm

“Given the results on blind testing wine enthusiasts, I’m inclined to wonder how well even the experts will do at distinguishing reproductions from the original.”

Even if experts can tell, the question is how much difference is there in the perceptual/psychological experience of seeing the original vs the 3d reproduction vs a 2d print (especially given that any 3D aspects are brought out by lighting and shadow — just as they are when the painting is hung and lit in a gallery). I think that there’s very little consequential perceptual difference between the original and a print (and often the differences that do exist are to the advantage of the print — which was shot in ideal lighting and can be viewed at leisure with no other museum-goers to get in the way). I suspect the main psychological effect of seeing the original derives from the belief (true or not) that one is in the presence of something valuable and rare — the sensory properties of the object itself are secondary.

eddie August 26, 2013 at 6:50 pm

I’ve seen Van Gogh prints.

I’ve seen paintings up close. They don’t look at all like prints.

I’ve never seen a Van Gogh painting up close. I’d like to. And if a 3D replica was indistinguishable from the original, then I’d be quite satisfied by seeing the replica.

Bill August 26, 2013 at 4:38 pm

I think we should have an art museum

Which exclusively features

These 3D copies and well executed forgeries of world class art.

I think I’ll pitch this to Disney.

Silas Barta August 26, 2013 at 7:57 pm

Burma … shave?

uair01 August 26, 2013 at 4:47 pm

This has lots of potential! The normal public won’t see the difference anyway. So we can exhibit the copies and keep the originals in a dark, climatised safe. Imagine the saving in Insurance premiums!
:-)

Dismalist August 26, 2013 at 6:05 pm

Schumpeter once wrote: Feudalism is silk stockings for Marie Antoinette; capitalism is nylon stockings for factory girls.

I love the idea of 3-D reproductions! Capitalism marches on!

Ed August 27, 2013 at 7:57 am

Like many people do, Schumpeter confused capitalism with mass production.

Albigensian August 26, 2013 at 6:52 pm

Even if you could make a copy so good that it could be distinguished from the original only by microscopic examination, the original would retain value and the copy would not. Nor would wide availability of these excellent copies- even at low prices- change that.

Arguably, a copy might be better in some ways than the original. For example, many renaissance-era paintings have deteriorated- the surface may be crazed, and efforts to restore the painting may have added non-removable layers of darkened varnish. Presumably one could reverse-engineer the deterioration to produce copies that looked much more like the original (without technical examination) than the original.

If the whole point is just viewing enjoyment, then these better-than-the-original copies should have great value- and yet (unless perhaps there is some way to produce scarcity) they won’t.

And what of (for example) a bronze sculpture? Forget about 3D printers- using 3D laser imaging, it is possible to produce a new mold that can produce copies of the sculpture using the same material and producing micrometer-accuracy.

Perhaps we’ve become used to the idea that a digital copy is not “just as good as” the original, but is actually identical to it (and so it is). But in the art world, a copy can never be an original- no matter how good it is.

Therefore, value in the art world will continue to depend on scarcity, just as it always has, no matter how proficient the copyists art becomes.

Rahul August 27, 2013 at 1:55 am

You are mistaken to think that the art-snobishhness is a natural phenomenon immune to external pressures. A whole industry works hard to prop it up but the lack of a high fidelity reproduction mechanism was very essential to the exclusiveness on which astronomical art prices thrive.

An obsession with provenance and scrupulous tracking down of forgeries were part of the strategy to perpetrate the cult of exclusiveness and the associated high prices scarcity begets.

I’ll wait and watch, but if this pans out I’d expect to see an impact and the bursting of the high priced art balloon may not be entirely a sad endgame.

joshuah August 27, 2013 at 1:19 pm

“lack of a high fidelity reproduction mechanism was very essential to the exclusiveness on which astronomical art prices thrive”

Synthetics don’t appear to have hurt the diamond market, though one could have made a similar argument not too long ago.

Sigivald August 26, 2013 at 6:57 pm

Over the internet it is hard to tell how good they are, but I would bet $50 I cannot be fooled, not yet at least. And even if I could be fooled, I wouldn’t pay that much for one.

I probably would be – and I’d totally pay $50 for a good print of Sunflowers even if it didn’t fool me, because it’s a very nice painting.

DK August 26, 2013 at 7:37 pm

Professionally-done canvas prints are quite good! For $200 you can have an excellent print at sizes close to the originals.

Asher August 27, 2013 at 4:12 am

I think DK has the last word here. Excellent forgeries can be made by humans for much less than 20 grand. And they are much more difficult to distinguish from the originals. In a true double blind distinction is probably impossible.

(Example of double blind: someone finds an indisputably authentic unknown Van Gogh. A “forger” is hired to create a Van Gogh style painting. An expert is asked to guess which one is real.) In this case the properties of the original are well known so the copy can be identified.

dan1111 August 27, 2013 at 12:29 pm

The eventual cost of a 3D printed reproduction is going to be far less than the cost of a hand-painted forgery, though.

EnerGeoPolitics August 26, 2013 at 8:11 pm

Soon enough, you’ll be able to purchase a 3D monitor that doesn’t require glasses, and the museums of the world will sell subscriptions so that you can view their entire collections and showcase them on your walls.

Mike H August 26, 2013 at 9:19 pm

Would we still need the originals, if we could make perfect copies? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWqVoaYxgRs

Roy August 26, 2013 at 10:05 pm

If a perfect copy of Starry Night cost me a a couple hundred I would bite, I have a museum poster for a Frederic Church exhibit with The Icebergs by my desk, and I have Miro and Calder lithographs I paid quite a bit more than that for. the mark up for a “authentic lithograph” is pretty impressive if you think about it. But comparing a third or fifth generation Hogarth to a first you can see that the premium is in the quality of reproduction.

If the painting is good enough to give you genuine and long lasting pleasure why wouldn’t you be willing to buy a perfect copy.

Thursday August 26, 2013 at 10:44 pm

Since the invention of writing, literature has always had a high degree of replicability, we now have very good replication capacity for music, movies have always been designed to be replicable, but only recently have high quality replications become available virtually on demand at a reasonable price. The visual arts have been the last, but we aren’t far away from very high quality reproductions of them too. I wouldn’t be that worried about the general market for originals. People will always want close contact with the artist’s essence. Recordings haven’t killed concerts. But museums and places that rely heavily on art tourism should be very worried. Would you necessarily spend the money to travel to Italy if you can have the complete Italian art canon available to you in a virtual museum? Probably you’d spend some, but you’d probably spend less than you otherwise would.

albatross August 27, 2013 at 5:05 pm

Depends. Is going to a museum really about appreciating art? Or is it signaling to others or yourself, or the experience of getting to see The Lourve or the Sistine Chapel with your own eyes?

Steve Sailer August 26, 2013 at 11:04 pm

You could buy custom-made forgeries of 20th Century paintings accurate enough to sell for up to $17 million for four digits:

http://isteve.blogspot.com/2013/08/art-forger-exploited.html

victor August 27, 2013 at 2:22 am

222 pound is to much

victor August 27, 2013 at 2:23 am

222 pound is too much

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The Roofer August 27, 2013 at 7:27 am

I like the idea of printing the frame and picture back in 3-D as well. At least we can save a bit with these included in the £22,000.

Clam August 27, 2013 at 12:18 pm

(Synthetic) Diamonds.

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