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Kinkade products, er, paintings, flying off gallery walls

Rich Pedroncelli / AP

Jeff Nilluka, left, and his son Jamis, 8, view works of baseball paintings at the Thomas Kinkade gallery in the late artist's hometown of Placerville, Calif.

In life, Thomas Kinkade was easily one of the world’s most commercially successful artists. In death, his popularity has only grown.

“It’s like if you take Christmas and multiply it by 12, or maybe even by 15,” said Linda McLoone, director of the Thomas Kinkade Signature gallery in Port Jefferson, N.Y.  “It’s good, but it’s sad.”

Since the “Painter of Light” died April 6 at age 54, rabid Kinkade fans, along with novices, have swarmed  his numerous galleries around the country, purchasing mass-made reproductions and prints of the artist’s works even faster than his corporate arm can churn them out (more than 500 copies per day).

To be clear: These are not Kinkade originals – which are rare and can fetch five or six figures. The hot market this week is largely machine-made lithographs on canvas – some signed on the back by Kinkade, others hand-highlighted or “enhanced” by other painters, generally priced at $800 to $1,600.

Retailers say other products – which include prints, nightlights, coffee mugs and bath lotions – also are selling briskly.

At the Port Jefferson outlet, buyers waited in three-hour lines to order factory reproductions of paintings with titles such as “Beside Still Waters,” “Mountain Majesty” and “Sweetheart Cottage III.” More than 100 other would-be buyers clogged the gallery’s voicemail, McLoone said.

“We’re getting inundated,” said Sal Catalfumo, who co-owns five Kinkade galleries in New York and New Jersey.

How much have sales jumped since Kinkade’s brush was silenced?

“I’d prefer not to mention that,” Catalfumo said. “I don’t want it to look like, because of his dying, we’re benefiting. I’d rather have him not be gone and take away all the money I’ve made this week and instead know that I have a flourishing business for 15 to 25 years.”

Some fine-art appraisers, like Ithaca, N.Y.-based Evan D. Williams, have heard secondhand that some gallery owners “are doing massive markups” on Kinkade pieces.

 A call Wednesday to the Patrick’s Fine Art, a Thomas Kinkade dealer in Mount Dora, Fla., failed to shed any light on whether retailers have boosted prices.

“It’s selling very well,” the gallery operator, Jimmy Patrick, said of Kinkade’s line, featuring works like light-blazing country cottages and snow-covered churches. “As far as any other comments, I suggest you go to corporate.”

AP via PR Newswire

An undated photo provided by The Thomas Kinkade Co. shows Kinkade's "Christmas in New York."

Corporate is an apt term for Kinkade’s empire. His paintings became a brand -- feel-good images that resonated with thousands of mainstream consumers. At his peak, Kinkade’s products, virtually ignored by serious art critics, were said to generate about $100 million in annual revenue through a chain of franchised galleries.

Corporate officials at Thomas Kinkade Co. in Morgan Hill, Calif., did not respond to msnbc.com’s interview request.

The question now: Will all those people clamoring for and collecting Kinkade reproductions see a profit from their investments? Will the value rise for pieces never touched by Kinkade?

“If somebody were to come to me with one of those embellished prints and ask my professional opinion on selling it, insuring it or donating it, I’m in a tough spot,” said Williams, the appraiser, who does not deal in Kinkades. “Even though he’s so well known – and, in some aspects, the most successful artist in history – he’s got a completely terrible secondary market track record as far as I know.”

And that’s not because the secondary art market frowns on embellished reproductions. Andy Warhol’s reprinted serigraphs gained value after the pop artist’s death.

“I’m not a forecaster, but I don’t see that happening with Kinkade,” Williams said. “It all goes back to this concept of things being legitimized by the art world, and, yes, it’s all very arbitrary. Is Warhol objectively better than Kinkade? I would think so.”

However, Kinkade prints are hardly worthless, he added.

“This week, I read articles where some gallery owners have said that if something is mass-produced, it’s never worthwhile,” Williams said. “That’s absolutely wrong. I think that’s a dangerous generalization.”

But when it comes to the future value of Kinkade’s factory-made pieces, it may be the rules of basic economics that ultimately trump art snobbery. In other words, Kinkade Inc. may be hurt by the fact that, for years, it flooded the market with reproductions.

Kinkade’s website lists hundreds of paintings including 31 bridges, 22 churches, 68 cityscapes, 74 cottages and 36 "inspirational” images. Copies are sold through a network of hundreds of galleries, including dozens of “signature gold” galleries devoted entirely to the artist’s work and “signature silver” galleries that generally include at least a Kinkade viewing room.

“Is supply going to outpace demand?” Williams asked. “Probably.”

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It could take months before we know what killed popular artist Thomas Kinkade, the so-called "painter of light," who faced a number of legal and financial problems in recent years. NBC's Mike Taibbi reports.