Paris Copy King Daniel Delamare Makes a Good Impression (ist)

updated 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/11/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Art patrons often gasp in shock when they enter Daniel Delamare's gallery in Paris. Every expanse of wall space in the Avenue Matignon showroom is filled with the signed creations of immortal artists, among them Rousseau, Gauguin, Degas and Cézanne. In an age when modern masterpieces are scattered around the world, in museums, bank vaults and private collections, Delamare's showroom seems truly remarkable.

But wait a minute. Isn't that painting by Renoir, In the Meadow, normally found in the S.A. Lewisohn Collection in New York? And doesn't van Gogh's Olive Trees, Blue Sky hang in a gallery in Holland? If Daniel Delamare isn't an international art thief, then he must be the world's most brazen forger. Au contraire, says Delamare, 34, a former textile manufacturer, the paintings are not originals, but he isn't trying to con anyone. And the works, he insists, can stand on their own.

"These are," explains the fast-talking Frenchman, "genuine copies." Obviously connoisseurs agree, since the paintings, thus acknowledged, still sell for between $5,000 and $18,000. Created by a stable of 15 skilled painters, they are, says Delamare, copies "of high artistic value completely faithful to the style and spirit of the master. Each painter works like the great master with a technique as close as possible to the original. The copy has the same strength and feeling as the original." Not to mention the same signature.

"All the legal questions have been resolved when you buy a Daniel Delamare," the gallery's owner declares. None of the oil-on-canvas copies is exactly the same size as the original, he points out, and he has permission to reproduce the signatures—sometimes from the masters' descendants, who are occasionally rewarded with royalties. What's more, says Delamare, nobody would really be fooled by his works for long. "The first thing an expert does," he says, grabbing a Degas from the wall and unceremoniously flipping it over, "is look at the back." Sure enough, there for all the world to see is a "Daniel Delamare-Copie" stamp.

"There is no misunderstanding possible," maintains Delamare, who even requires buyers to sign a certificate stating that they have knowingly bought a non-original. But the copies aren't a bad investment either. "Each one is unique," says Delamare proudly. "We're not going to make several copies of the same work. If somebody wants a Delamare that's already been sold, he must deal with the present owner, who can set his own price."

If, indeed, Delamares acquire real value in a secondary art market, much of the credit should go to the gallery owner's hardworking and more silent partner, Belgian art historian Danielle Van Santen, 32. It was Van Santen, a former art cataloger with the Belgian Ministry of Culture, who spent 2½ years meeting nearly 3,000 contemporary European painters in order to select the 15 who now work—anonymously—for the gallery. It was also Van Santen who decided, after viewing the first 60 paintings commissioned, that seven were artistically unworthy and would be destroyed. (They were redone by other artists.)

Van Santen met her partner in 1984, while they were standing in front of a friend's reproductions that both she and Delamare considered disappointing. After Van Santen found an artist who was able to duplicate Delamare's own favorite work, Turner's Fighting Téméraire, Delamare began planning for his gallery. "I thought it was an interesting idea, but not self-evident," admits Van Santen. "Little by little I was convinced. Lots of people want a copy of a painting they dream of."

Other gallery owners, however, find Delamare's big talk—and bigger success—hard to take. "They're green with rage! There was even a petition going around to get rid of me!" crows the self-described "megalomaniac." Distinguished art dealer Hervé Odermatt, head of his own gallery nearby, admits he is outraged by the respect the press has given the imitations. "It's not the first time that someone is selling copies," observes Odermatt. "It's always been done. But for the press to make people believe that to hang up a copy is the same as hanging up a Renoir is a total lie."

Odermatt, moreover, has a low opinion of the quality of Delamare's unoriginal. "They're dead," he complains. "They're like dead cells. How can they pretend to vibrate, give emotion, like the genuine pieces?" Top Paris art auctioneer Guy Loudmer agrees: "I find it depressing. A copy is as much a work of art as a transvestite in the Bois de Boulogne is a high-society lady."

Delamare dismisses such complaints as mere highbrow snootiness. The youngest of four children whose father died when Daniel was 2, Delamare and his brother were raised in a children's home outside Paris. It was there, he says, that "I learned to love art. Painting became my real family." Textiles, however, became his livelihood after he was trained in photography and served an unhappy stint in a Paris press agency. Following a short apprenticeship in a company owned by friends, he launched his own textile business in 1978, producing, among other things, Lacoste—look-alike shirts for Walt Disney that featured, in place of a little crocodile, a mini-Mickey Mouse holding a tennis racket.

The business brought Delamare prosperity (he owns a dozen antique cars and a seaside house in Deauville) but little satisfaction. These days he loves his work so much that he brings it home, rearranging his copies in the Paris penthouse apartment that he shares with wife Estelle, 26, a manufacturer of women's ready-to-wear clothing, their son, Alexandre, 3, a maid and a nanny.

Delamare, in fact, seems positively triumphant as he contemplates his role as the ersatz-masterpiece maestro. Since the opening of his gallery last October, all 60 of his original non-originals have been sold, and he displays by appointment only. If critics don't like the copies, "let them buy van Goghs at $50 million," he says. "The present art market is wrong. You can have Modigliani, Manet, Degas and Rousseau above your head for an affordable price." And yes, you can fool some of the people some of the time.

—By Ned Geeslin, with Cathy Nolan in Paris

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