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A Monet for $595, Anyone?

August 27, 1999 GMT

NEW YORK (AP) _ It’s a marriage of state-of-the-art laser optics and great old art: Claude Monet’s water lilies, yours for only $595, its thick oil paint bobbing on the dark-blue pond.

``I was in my car one day and I said to myself, ’I’ve got to figure out a way to recreate art that looks like the original,‴ said Harvey Kalef, founder of Atelier America Inc., which has developed a computerized oil-on-canvas method to make masterpieces virtually indistinguishable from originals.

So for a fraction of the price, one can now virtually match any billionaire’s art collection.

Dozens of Impressionist and modern canvases were on view this week at the toney Manhattan restaurant Le Cirque. No museum guard rushed over as art lovers touched the thick brushstrokes of images by Van Gogh and Renoir.

From the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, there’s also a copy of Michelangelo’s ``Creation of Adam,″ and from the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, ``Ballet Rehearsal″ by Edgar Degas.

They’re all available through a mail-order catalog, at prices ranging from $475 to about $2,000, framed. Or one can lease a copy, at about $30 a month.

Nobody in the company will divulge exactly how the copying is done. ``After all, Colonel Sanders doesn’t tell you how he makes his chicken, either!″ joked Marilyn Dickson, a vice president of Atelier America, based in Markham, Ontario.

But during a two-hour media presentation, some of the ``secrets″ that cost millions of dollars to develop did trickle out.

Here goes: After a transparency is made of the original comes the mystery technology _ a laser optical scanner that ``interprets″ each brushstroke, its thickness and depth. Digitalized optics then capture the color nuances, which are later transferred to the canvas by a machine with a computer memory.

Based on the scanned information, a mold is painstakingly made, inch by inch, and a massive steel ``forming″ machine using a thermal process churns out the texture onto the canvas. The mold is destroyed after limited editions of no more than about 900 copies are made; the back of each canvas is stamped to indicate it’s a reproduction.

Finally, each work is touched up by human beings with paint and brush.

One artist, John O’Brien, even coaches these Atelier artists to finish up his own copied paintings.

``They’re as close as possible to the original,″ he said, glancing at a replica of his ``Fleurs,″ a French-style street scene with a flower shop.

``It could fool even me,″ he said. After he sold the original ``Fleurs,″ his wife’s favorite among his works, the couple acquired a copy for their home in Marin County, Calif.

He gets a commission from each reproduction after signing it. The company also pays royalties to other owners of artworks copied.

When it comes to dead masters, O’Brien notes, ``Van Gogh was known for his brushstrokes, not for flat copied sunflowers under glass. The joy of his art is in the thick paint _ and now you can have it for the price of a vacuum cleaner!″

Since the first reproductions were created in 1995, Atelier America has sold tens of thousands of its replicas.

They’re so real that customs officials at the Rome airport detained a copy of ``Creation of Adam″ being shipped to the Vatican ``because they thought it was the original,″ said Ms. Dickson. ``This is no cookie-cutter process.″