Museum rewards donor with fake art to hang at home

After collector Henry Bloch donated an enviable group of impressionist artworks to the city’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the museum returned the favor, sort of.

The museum printed digital copies of each of Mr. Bloch’s 29 paintings—including examples by Edouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse—and delivered the framed replicas to his home two months ago so he could hang them in the exact same spots as the originals. Mr. Bloch said the copies are so realistic, he has to peer closely to discern the differences. “Every museum should be offering this service,” he said.

Art forgers aren’t the only ones using technology to produce ever-more-convincing fake paintings. Museums, in a rarely discussed practice, are churning them out as thank-you gifts to major donors. Curators say it’s mostly a taboo topic because the recipients don’t always like to admit they’ve got a glorified poster hanging in the place of a masterpiece, but Sotheby’s said auction houses have long gifted their major consignors with framed copies of big-ticket items. 

Julian Zugazagoitia, CEO and director of the Nelson-Atkins, said he initially considered the Bloch copies to be a fluky one-off, a gesture that could allow the museum to display Mr. Bloch’s art as part of its permanent collection when it reopens its renovated European art galleries March 11. Otherwise, it would have had to wait for the works to be given in a promised bequest as part of the 94-year-old collector’s estate. (Mr. Bloch’s foundation paid $12.7 million for the renovation.)

Yet as word spread of the museum’s unconventional offer, the director said his own trustees started reaching out, seeking prints for their art holdings. The director said going public about the potential perk could elicit gifts while donors are still alive. “The offer is becoming part of my tool kit now,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said.

Mr. Zugazagoitia said he is aware that such swapping could undermine one of the intangible factors that fuel an artwork’s value, namely the evidence of the artist’s own handiwork or at least the artist’s legitimising involvement. The museum itself will continue to display only original works, not copies. “We still believe in the aura of artists’ works,” he said. “People who come here need to see the originals.”The museum’s knockoffs are designed to look real—but only from the front so as not to dupe anyone long-term, said Steve Waterman, the museum’s director of design and experience. The fake canvases lack telltale brush strokes, and the backs of their frames lack gallery labels and other notations that appraisers and authenticators typically use to determine a work’s legitimacy.