China's 'art factory' painters turn from fakes to originals

Painters in a Chinese village once known for churning out replicas of Western masterpieces are now making original art worth thousands of dollars, selling their own works in a booming domestic art market.

Home to more than 8,000 artists, southern China's Dafen has been producing near-perfect copies of timeless masterpieces for years.

In its heyday, three out of five oil paintings sold worldwide were made in the village, and for years village painters sold their copies to buyers across Europe, the Middle East and the United States.

Exports began to dip after the 2008 global financial crisis, and all but dried up when China slammed shut its borders in 2020 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

A few artists gave up and closed their studios. But others saw in the obstacles an opportunity to establish themselves as painters in their own right by catering to China's art market, the second-biggest in the world, with sales jumping by 35 percent in 2021.

Self-taught artist Zhao Xiaoyong used to sell replicas of Vincent van Gogh's work for about 1,500 yuan ($220) each, while his original pieces fetch up to 50,000 yuan, he said.

When Zhao moved to Dafen from central China in 1997, his family shared a tiny two-bedroom apartment with five other tenants.

"Those days, there was an assembly line-style system, with each artist painting a small section of a larger piece, like an eye or a nose, before passing the piece to another painter to draw a limb or a shirt sleeve," he told AFP.

After years of cranking out mock masterpieces, Zhao eventually saved enough money to visit the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam and the Saint-Paul Asylum in southern France, where the artist famously painted "The Starry Night."

"I felt I could...

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