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March 26, 2011

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Fakes threaten farmer artists

UP to 80 percent of paintings on sale said to be by Shanghai's "farmer Picassos" are in fact fakes, a leading academic has claimed.

Suburban Jinshan District is home to hundreds of farmer painters whose rural works in vibrant colors are sold domestically and overseas. But the style has been copied by imitators eager to grab some of the market.

"The farmer painters have tasted the market's fruits but are now tasting its bitterness," said Cai Fengming, a professor with Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

Cai said he was shocked to discover during the course of research and interviews with painters that up to 80 percent of the Jinshan farmer paintings sold on the market were bogus. Some art school students even knock out imitations as their part-time job, said Cai.

The problem has become more serious in recent years, as Jinshan farmer paintings have grown from a cottage industry to a more established one.

The farmer paintings originated in villages in Jinshan, in the city's south end by the sea, about 50 years ago. The subjects are mostly rural scenery or snapshots of life and are seen as an embodiment of artists' love for their hometown and life.

But Jinshan artists, also known as "farmer Picassos," are struggling as imitators move in.

"If the situation continues like this," said Cao Jingen, a farmer painter, "the art will lose its root and inheritance."

Cao said he was once involved in a lawsuit over the copyright of his work sold in Taiwan. He won that battle, but is worn out by the continual struggle against imitators who charge much lower prices. His original works, which cost thousands of yuan, have to compete with counterfeiters charging only dozens of yuan, Cao added.

Cao, 42, was born into a poor peasant family and began learning Jinshan farmer painting as a child. He has won prizes for his work.

Despite the fame, many farmer artists, especially the old, live a hard, often poor, life, said Cao.

"We live by selling our work," said Cao. "You can't think about creativity when you can't feed your family."

Today Jinshan has an estimated 600 farmer painters, including more than 100 full-timers.

Experts and lawyers fear the situation will not improve even when China's first intangible cultural heritage protection law is introduced in June. Liu Chunquan, a lawyer, said the law is "just a framework" and a real lawsuit could be more complex.

"If we define that the farmer painting is just a paint style, then anyone can use it without violating the law," said Liu. "And we define it's the specific work of certain people through inheritance, then what about the other painters?"

Other intangible heritage cases may face similar problems, said experts.


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