wall st journal 7.14.06 / howard behrens isn't the sort of artist to have his works sold by a top auction house or exhibited at the museum of modern art. but that hasn't stopped him from getting paid like one. / when mr. behrens got his start in the early 1980s, his brighly colored italian cafes and sun-dappled french gardens were big sellers as $20 posters or $1k limited-edition prints at shops such as the village gallery at brea mall in brea, calif., but thanks to growing demand at midtier galleries and on cruise ships, mr. behrens is increasingly focusing on original oil paintings. a couple of canvases showing a garden path and a lily-pad pond - his tributes to monet - just went for $50k each, roughly the same price paid three months ago at christie's for an intricate ink drawing of a cat's eyes by lucian freud. "i hit the jackpot," mr. behrens says. / there's a new group of contemporary artists fetching six figures a pop. though hardly embraced by the art-world cognoscenti, artists who are known for neon sunsets, frolicking dolphins and photorealistic unicorns are increasingly selling at prices to rival critical art darlings like rachel whiteread, richard diebenkorn and franz kline. their posters may still adorn the walls of dentists' offices, nursing homes and chain-hotel rooms, but their original canvases can sell for anywhere from $10k to $300k, roughly double from five years ago. often bypassing art hubs like new york and london, the artists reign over their own product-licensing empires and gallery circuits, making marquee stops in las vegas and coastal cities like coconut grove, fla. most have waiting lists and fan clubs; a few sport taglines like the "painter of light," "picasso of glass" and "king of the line." / retail-chain galleries are stocking up on originals as the market wanes for limited-edition prints and fine-art prices continue to climb. in lichtfield, conn., thomas mcknight is leveraging a career spent painting works of tourist-spot courtyards to sell his new $45k paintings of nymphs and satyrs in forests and temples. three years ago, galleries that carried don li-leger's $99 framed posters of irises and bamboo set against burgundy backdrops started asking for originals. now those canvases go for $15k each. mr li-leger has since planted extra easels around his british columbia home and doubled his output, to 200 pieces a year. / the ascendance of these poster-shop poster boys has infuriated the formal art establishment, adding fuel to a long-simmering debate over the definition of contemporary art. scholars and curators say today's art should pick up on ideas and styles championed by top artists of the past century, and move beyond them. acclaimed artists like jeff koons and damien hirst imbue their work with irony and pop-culture imagery. (mr. koons has made a ceramic statue of michael jackson, while mr. hirst is encrusting a human skull with diamond "bling.") / "art should be difficult," says james elkins, who teaches art criticism at the school of the art institute of chicago. as for mass-market pieces, he says, "it's kitsch with a historically short shelf life." / but beyond the world of biennials and billionaire patrons are artists who work more out of time - emulating earlier eras like impressionism, realism, and romanticism, with scenes that are often steeped in nostalgia or fantasy. diane romanello paints winding forest paths and adirondack chairs overlooking the beach, while george tsui makes detailed portraits of concubines in forbidden city costume. they're finding an audience among the broad swath of americans who want original art, but who don't want to decorate their living rooms with sharks suspended in formeldahyde. / "urinals placed on a wall and called art? we don't sell that," says christian o'mahony, chief financial officer of wentworth gallery, a miami-based chain with 23 shops in malls and resort towns. "walking into a new york gallery, you feel like you need to have a phd in art history." / robert and sunny olson count themselves among the new collectors. they used to pepper their home in jupiter, fla., with framed prints of floral arrangements and key west beaches. after attending an art auction on a cruise five years ago on a whim, they have bought several dozen original works, including a 6-foot-tall oil painting of a woman overlooking a lavender sea by mr. behrens, a $75k oil of a couple gazing at each other in front of a violet and yellow swirl by alexandra nechita and a $3k guy buffet portrait of a chef holding a platter of fish and standing besides a blue dog. the olsons, retirees from the insurance industry, are confident their art has appreciated in value. "i only want originals now because i think their value will hold up," ms. olson says. "some of these pictures belong in museums." / indeed, these artists' works are selling for higher prices amid the growing art and collectibles market that has lifted prices of everything from contemporary works to '60s lunchboxes. bill mack is primarily known for relief sculptures of nude women who bear a physical resemblance to the silhouettes on semi-truck mud flaps, and go for about $5k each in limited editions. he's painting more, and recently sold a $75k portrait of jean harlow, and is now working on a commmissioned 8-foot portrait of several "legends" he won't name. the price: $250k, the going rate at auction this spring for minor works by willem de kooning, david hockney and gerhard richter. / christian riese lassen, based in maui, paints hawaiian beaches and sunsets in vivid pinks and purples, and detailed scenes of fish and dolphins, sometimes cavorting in outer space. since the 1980s, lassen images have been printed on everything from posters to school supplies and personal checks, and in 1990, he started his own franchise of galleries. this year, his original canvases, which can take six months to paint, have sold for $300k, up from $125k five years ago and $35k in 1990. about 60% of his market is now in japan; in may, 4k fans turned up at a tokyo autograph signing. / mr. lassen says he may not be a critical favorite, but he doesn't mind. "i'm just a painter and a surfer, and i don't really care," he said, reached last week after a painting trip to tahiti. "there are millions of people who love my work , and there may be millions who hate it." / the changing economics at frame shops and galleries have also helped boost the market for these original works. since at least the 1950s, midlevel galleries have typically profited by selling and framing posters by hundreds of artsists under contract to the country's 20-odd art publishers. in most cases, the subject of the art mattered more than its makers. (art publishing is an estimated $150m industry.) in the 1980s and 1990s, the industry began pushing higher-priced prints called lithographs in signed-and-numbered editions - typically under 500, but sometimes as high as 4k. but now that customers can comparison-shop online for posters and lithographs, the galleries are increasingly asking artists for originals. / the focus on one-of-a-kind works can pay off. at the wentworth gallery chain, sales of originals make up 65% of the company's business, up from 30% a decade ago. the average sale price is $2k, double from 10 years ago, the company says. / another growing venue: cruises. since 1996, carnival's princess cruises line has held art auctions on board its 15 ships. royal caribbean and celebrity cruises, with a combined 3.4m passengers on 29 ships last year, have followed. the companies declined to give revenues, but a princess spokeswoman says its programs are "popular." mr. behrens has another word: "windfall." four years ago, he began sending about 15 original paintings a month to princess cruises. they have all sold, he says, for as much as $50k each. / raising prices have angered some blue-chip dealers, who justify their own prices by saying their work comes with the blessing of academics, a solid exhibition history and the ability to be resold at major auction houses. so far, the two biggest auction houses have declined to accept mass-retail art. "you're seeing a self-created art market that's sleazy and embarrassing," says richard polsky, a sausalito, calif., art dealer who has exhibited and sold works by andy warhol and ed ruscha. "the assumption at high prices is that it is investment-grade art, but these works aren't really liquid." / the works' resale market - the traditional bellweather for artistic legacy - typically hasn't been strong. mr. mcknight's paintings have resold at regional auction houses for around $2k, compared with his retail prices of $16k to $45k. a year ago, a painting by mr. behrens, "walking on a beach," fetched $5k when it was auctioned at an estate sale at the arthur james galleries in delary beach, fla. mr. behrens's wife and publisher judi behrens says the artist doesn't track resale prices but thinks the piece was "grossly undervalued." gallery director george martin says he was surprised it got that much, because the artist's work usually resells for one-third of retail prices. he had estimated a high of $3k. / collector tom colich is optimistic that prices will rise. he has paid from $15k to $120k each for nearly a dozen portraits by the concubine portraitist mr. tsui over the past 10 years, and likes the art's "three-dimensional element." mr. colich, who runs a torrance, calif., firm that builds tract housing, believes museums will eventually agree on the art's potential. "in the long run, they'll see that." / a few so-called commercial artists have crossed over to fine-art acceptance. from sports painter leroy neiman to fashion portraitist erte. norman rockwell, once scorned by critics, has been exhibited at the guggenheim museum in new york. his 1945 painting of a soldier's comecoming sold this year at auction for a record $9.2m. scottish artist jack vettriano found fans for his paintings of well-to-do couples dancing on beaches. two years ago, sotheby's sold his best-known work, 1992's "the singing butler," for a record $1.3m. but simon toll, sotheby's specialist in scottish pictures, says this year the artist is selling for about one-third of his "singing butler" prices. "collectors have moved on," he says. / with fame also comes a downside: copycats and thieves. last year, mr. li-leger's publisher sent a cease-and-desist letter to an online vendor that imprinted his signature irises-and-bamboo look on garden clogs. galerie lassen, an outpost for mr. lassen's marine art at caesar's palace in las vegas, was robbed three years ago, allegedly by a cleaning crew that took two original paintings (one of mickey mouse), estimated to be worth up to $800k. police later recovered both works; one thief was caught attempting to sell one for $300 at an auto-body shop. / for some buyers, investment value and high-brow criticism aren't a concern. mike farro and his wife, teri, of sierra vista, ariz., have bought 17 pieces by mr. lassen over the last three years, including one of dolphins playing in the water and three orignal portraits of the statue of liberty, bought for $75k each. they say they intend to never sell the work. / last month, the couple flew to las vegas for a reception at galerie lassen, and applauded as the artist unveiled his new series of calm and stormy beaches. "they left me speechless," says ms. farro, a paralegal. "he's a genius."