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Art Imitating Art

Every Home Can Be a Museum, Thanks to a New Generation of High-Quality Reproductions

June 22, 1996|KATHRYN BOLD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

From the outside, Howard Whittaker's house looks like any other in his comfortable Laguna Niguel neighborhood. It's the interior that reveals Whittaker's magnificent obsession: He has turned his home into a museum, an elegant showplace for his permanent collection of Remington bronzes and other western art.

Bronze statues by Frederic Remington and other master sculptors fill every niche of the house, adorning pedestals, coffee tables and alcoves.

All of the great Remingtons are on display: "Coming Through the Rye," with its pistol-waving horsemen; "Cheyenne," which captures the flight of a Native American on his charging horse; and "Mountain Man," a detailed depiction of a horse and rider negotiating treacherous terrain.

With a single Remington fetching thousands or millions of dollars at auction, Whittaker's collection would be worth a fortune--if it were made up of originals. In fact, the sculptures are all reproductions made by his company, Whittaker Western Bronzes, based in his home.

Although most of us would have trouble telling Whittaker's copies from the originals, there's a huge difference in price between a reproduction and the real thing. While an original "Cheyenne" sold at auction for $550,000, an identical copy by Whittaker sells for less than $800.

Remington's grandson William was so impressed with Whittaker's reproductions that he ordered one for himself.

"He said his grandmother used to use [original Remingtons] for doorstops," Whittaker says.

Thanks to art that imitates art, many people are furnishing their homes as if they were museums--and they're not using the artworks for doorstops.

It's the select few who can afford an original Remington or a Grecian urn, but replicas of masterpieces are increasingly within the financial reach. Shops such as the Museum Co. in Fashion Island Newport Beach have turned repro art into a big business.

"The average American can't afford to purchase a real piece of art," says Tracy Kuelmann, manager of the Museum Co. "Repros are the best way to have art in the home. They're things that are familiar to you, that you're comfortable with."

Decorators can have a replica of a Tiffany lamp for $199 to $449 that would cost $20,000 to $100,000 if authentic. The Museum Co. pays licensing fees to 220 museums worldwide to reproduce priceless vases, statuary, hand-woven tapestries and oil paintings.

"You name a century, we have art from that period," Kuelmann says.

Technology has helped make copies that are indistinguishable from the originals. Computers, for instance, can reproduce oil paintings down to their smallest brush strokes.

Recognizing the public's appetite for affordable art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art opened satellite stores that sell copies of treasures from the Met's permanent collection, including glassware, pottery, china, candlesticks and ancient Greek and Egyptian art.

No longer does one need to be rich to own, say, the head of a muse.

"Our curators are extremely particular. It can take two years to pass through the reproduction process," says Amy Smallwood, manager of the Metropolitan Museum of Art store in South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa. Priceless museum holdings can be had for $20 to $475.

"We're enabling a little history to go home with everybody," Smallwood says.

Repro art has gained in popularity as supplies of the original works have dried up.

Whittaker Western Bronzes began reproducing Remingtons to satisfy demand for the highly prized "cowboy and Indian" sculptures. Frederic Remington sculpted his first bronze, "the Bronco Buster," in 1895. He created just 22 sculptures from which he produced less than 500 bronze castings before he died at age 48 in 1909. After his death, Remington's widow continued to cast bronzes from the master molds.

"It's a fallacy that there's only one original" of each sculpture, Whittaker says.

In the art world, any bronzes that were cast from the artist's master mold are considered originals. An estimated 800 to 900 original castings were made from Remington's 22 master molds before they were destroyed.

"People believe that any time there's an old Remington, it's an original," Whittaker says. "Remington made only 300 to 350 'Bronco Buster' castings, but 5,000 claim to be originals. Some Remingtons in museums are originals, and some are not.

"It's difficult to tell an original from a good recast of an original."

An original has a written and oral history tracing its ownership that verifies its status.

At a recent exhibit of his Remingtons in Palm Springs, Whittaker met at least 50 people who said they had an original casting of "Coming Through the Rye," yet Remington produced no more than 20.

"They didn't know that a Japanese buyer paid $4.4 million for one."

Although the master molds were destroyed, perfect copies of Remingtons can be made by casting a bronze from an authentic original.

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