China’s copy-art market

Walking through one of New York’s many restaurants, you will most likely come across one of Van Gogh’s or Monet’s famous art pieces. Have you ever wondered how these restaurants got a hold of one of these unique paintings? The answer goes back to a small city in China, Dafen in Shenzhen Province just north of Hong Kong.

This city (Dafen; 大芬) has established itself as China’s centre for the production of commercial paintings and is known for its replicas of famous Western paintings, such as the Mona Lisa and Starry Night. Around 5,000 artists call this city their work place, producing around 20 pieces a day. Visitors of Dafen are instantly greeted by numerous paintings that decorate the shop windows. Most of these paintings are exported to overseas buyers, especially in the U.S. and Europe, where they decorate the walls of restaurants and private homes. This has developed into a highly profitable business for Dafen, growing 30 times from figures in 2004. According to Dafen village administration, last year's total value of Dafen’s painting industry reached 3.9 billion Yuan. In the previous years up to 2011, the export business was booming, seeing approximately half of the paintings being shipped overseas.

China's art-copy market

Dafen artist village

Dafen started off as a typical Chinese village with only a few hundred citizens from the Hakka ethnic minority. The transition to a unique artist village was brought about in 1998, when the Hong Kong painter and businessman Huang Jiang started an art workshop in the village, attracting a dozen other oil painters. As a result, the local government started actively supporting the oil painting industry in Dafen. Later on, Huang Jiang opened his own business which produces replicas of famous paintings. The very accurate and relatively inexpensive paintings (RMB 150 and up) quickly attracted a lot of interest. When demand grew dramatically, Huang Jiang brought in more artists, expanding the village to 10,000 painters who today work across the 800 replica galleries. Nowadays, the organization is often referred to as “China’s premier painting village”.  While anything produced in China is often viewed with scepticism in regards to copyright infringement, Dafen’s painting business officially operates in line with copyright regulations. The village follows the policy saying that the Chinese artists can only replicate works of artists who have died more than seventy years ago and are consequently part of the public domain.

Dafen, collection of paintings

However, Dafen’s painting village does not only offer replicas of famous paintings, but also various traditional Chinese paintings, sculptures, calligraphy and crafts. Especially in 2012, these Chinese art pieces have become the main focus of Dafen’s artists, as the copy-art market suffered a lot from the global economic slowdown. In the first half of 2012, exports fell by more than 50% due to low demand from Western countries. This caused Dafen’s painting village to shift from the famous Western replicas to traditional Chinese originals. This shift had also been brought on by the rise in disposable income of the Chinese population, which allows more and more Chinese to invest in art. Either way, Dafen remains a great example of how China managed to turn an artistic craft into a profitable production industry.