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Art Gifts Supply Big Profits to World Museums

For all his forward-looking inventions, Leonardo da Vinci probably never imagined his Mona Lisa under a computer mouse.

Along with Van Gogh hair clips, Kandinsky scarves, and Mondrian drinking glasses, masterpiece mouse pads are among myriad art reproductions museums have plucked from their collections to earn thousands - sometimes millions - of dollars.

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On display at a three-day Paris trade show, which closes today, the artifacts - ranging from kings of France playing cards to replicas of the Elgin Marbles - are symbols of how temples of art must kowtow to commerce.

According to the show's organizers, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York made $40 million in sales of art objects in 1994.

Jane Lock, licensing manager of V&A Enterprises Ltd., the sales wing of London's Victoria and Albert Museum, says that museum-related merchandise brings in modest sums of cash, but it is a useful advertising tool.

''An item we sell in Harrod's or a department store hopefully sparks an interest in an audience that does not generally go to museums,'' she says.

The Victoria and Albert makes $800,000 in annual profits from its merchandise, which includes proceeds from mail-order catalogs and royalties on reproductions. New York's Guggenheim Museum makes ties and scarves from its modern paintings, sometimes directly copying a work - such as an $85 silk scarf of Mondrian's ''Composition VII'' - but more often merely drawing inspiration from an artist's style.

''Continental European museums might be too stuck on their collections. The US is much more innovative - that's the most striking cultural difference,'' says Frederic Rambaud, one of the show's organizers.

Until this year, reproduction rights were not tightly controlled, allowing maverick companies to manufacture floods of poor quality copies.

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''I've walked into stores and seen some Miro ties that were just awful,'' says Leta Stathacos of Art Objects Unlimited, an American firm representing artists who develop museum-derived items.

But under a new global copyright law, effective Jan. 1, rights to reproduce a work of art must be negotiated with the artist's estate - not necessarily with its owner.

''The age of artistic ripoff is over. Just because you own a work, it doesn't mean you can reproduce it,'' Ms. Stathacos says.

Works by deceased artists with no known survivors may be reproduced without permission, enabling, for example, the indiscriminate use of the Mona Lisa for key chains and T-shirts.

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