In our economy, much art is held for its investment value as much as for its aesthetic value. @Richard has pointed out (in another question) that Roddenberry defined money out of the Star Trek economy but that doesn't deal with the issue of objects of unique value.

With replicators, does original art even have a meaning? Let's suppose that Pollock's Lavender Mist has survived, with impeccable provenance, to the 24th century. It is then replicated. Could any test known to the time distinguish the original from the replica? Are there are any minute differences, undetectable in the first replica, that would build up and be detected in the Nth replica, where N is a big number?

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    – Valorum
    Dec 12, 2015 at 22:40
  • @Richard Please see my edited question. Is it OK to change the question this much?
    – user48960
    Dec 12, 2015 at 23:32
  • I'd be tempted to point at Why doesn't Starfleet transporter-copy priceless artifacts or important people? and Are there things a Replicator cannot replicate? as possible dupes. That being said, I don't think either of these adequately address your main question.
    – Valorum
    Dec 12, 2015 at 23:43
  • Interesting question. Are you actually an artist or collector? I can't really answer in terms of in universe for start trek but the idea of replication versus originality in art is very much a concern for modern day artists and looking at some real world examples might give you some ideas. Look at Andy Warhol and the "Factory" art was commodity and produced using methods akin to mass production. Art doesn't have to be retinal. The idea is sometimes what is of value so the first of something might always have more value than a replica. Try reading What art is by Athur C Danto. It might help.
    – skyjack
    Dec 12, 2015 at 23:43
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    There is a scene in The Undiscovered Country where Spock discusses a painting by Chagall (which is a real painting that Leonard Nimoy owned) with ensign Valeris. He discusses his response to it and why he hangs it in his quarters. It is to remind him "that all things end". Clearly he is aware that value does not derive from physical property as much as intellectual insight. A simple answer to your question is that on an intellectual level original art would always have meaning. Distinguishing an original from a replicated copy? I honestly could not say. Apologies for my very long response.
    – skyjack
    Dec 12, 2015 at 23:55

4 Answers 4


A replicated object can be distinguished from an original "organic" object at a micro-molecular level. It stands to reason that art forgery is next to impossible unless the "original" was a replicated object in the first place.

From the TNG Technical Manual:

As with all transporter-based replication systems, the food replicators operate at molecular resolution. Because of this, there are significant numbers of single-bit errors in the resulting replicated materials. These errors are not nutritionally significant (although some individuals do claim to be able to taste differences in certain dishes), but certain types of Altarian spices have shown a tendency to become mildly toxic when replicated, so their use is avoided in replicated dishes.


Because of the massive amount of computer memory required to store even the simplest object, it is impossible to record each molecule individually. Instead, extensive data compression and averaging techniques are used. Such techniques reduce memory storage required for molecular patterns by factors approaching 2.7 x 109. The resulting single-bit inaccuracies do not significantly impact the quality of most reproduced objects, but preclude the use of replicator technology to re-create living objects. Single-bit molecular errors could have severely detrimental effects on living DNA molecules and neural activity. Cumulative effects have been shown to closely resemble radiation-induced damage.


Another example of replicator limits is the single-bit DNA errors that led Data and Beverly to suspect Romulan trickery in the episode "Data's Day."

In order to replicate at the quantum level (e.g. with no errors), you would need access to the original. You could then move it from one place to another using the replicator (basically by using them as a glorified transporter) but you couldn't create a truly identical duplicate except by the sort of freakish accident that we see in TNG: Second Chances.

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    Should that be 2.7 times 10^9?
    – jpmc26
    Dec 13, 2015 at 4:30
  • @jpmc26 - Yes, of course it should :-) Otherwise it would be 294.3
    – Valorum
    Dec 13, 2015 at 8:39
  • Ha, so you'd get the MP3 version of the Mona Lisa. It's worth noting to time traveling fraudsters that the difference between original and replicated is probably not detectable using earlier technology however.
    – mxyzplk
    Dec 13, 2015 at 15:53
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    @mxyzplk - Stuff that has time-traveled has a temporal signature that's out of whack and they tend to it emits chronitons as well. Swiping stuff from the past isn't much of an option and there really isn't a lot of point creating artworks in the future (to bring to the past) unless you plan to live here permanently.
    – Valorum
    Dec 13, 2015 at 16:04

In the TNG episode "The Most Toys" trader Kivas Fajo fakes Commander Data's death in order to surreptitiously acquire Data for his art collection. While explaining Data's predicament to him, Fajo proudly describes several pieces from his collection, all of them original artifacts, at least according to Fajo. Among them, the first Basotile ever created, a vase by the late Mark Off-Zel, the Salvador Dali painting "The Persistence of Memory", and a Roger Maris baseball card. It turned out that Fajo had stolen all these items.

It seems unlikely that Fajo would have risked imprisonment to steal all these items if replicated copies held similar value.

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    This hints at a really good point: just because the Federation did away with an internal currency doesn't mean that everyone in the galaxy did as well. Thus, rarity/uniqueness in objects are still valuable... but just to others outside the immediate Federation economy.
    – Ellesedil
    Dec 13, 2015 at 4:54
  • It's notable that his "collecting" is viewed as a sign of immaturity (bordering on mental illness) rather than something to be admired. These things have value because a small group of weird aliens think they have value.
    – Valorum
    Dec 13, 2015 at 16:06

There may be some inconsistencies in TNG canon.

Riker was duplicated due to a transporter accident (Second Chances). One must assume that faithful reproduction by the transporter is essential to its function, so the transporter would seem to have the capacity for making indistinguishable copies - not simply deconstructing the subject at point A and reconstituting at point B.

Scotty was held in a sort of stasis for 75 years in a transporter buffer, suggesting that a pattern can be kept for a significant amount of time.

It seems to come up fairly often that replicated items (especially food and drink) are only approximations of the "original article". It would suggest that replicators are not intended to make precise copies of things, but rather to replace inventories of "genuine" articles and produce commodity items on an economic basis. It also comes up often that replicators and transporters are technological kin (as are holodecks, apparently).

If you put all this together, it seems that perhaps a high-fidelity replicator would be possible - such that a copy could be indistinguishable from an original which has traveled through a transporter. Such a device would essentially be a transporter which either does not deconstruct the original, or constructs one or more copies simultaneously with the original. One might imagine that compared to ordinary replicators, such a device might be more costly to build and operate, but certainly not impossible.

For collector Kevas Fajo (The Most Toys), the existence of such a device could be a problem - unless he acquired his artifacts before anybody thought of or had the opportunity to make "perfect" replicas of them.

On the other hand, one could step out-of-universe and consider that in pursuing some of their story ideas, the show writers had to ignore the inconsistencies they were creating.

  • Flesh this out and you have a research proposal for the 24th century equivalent of the National Science Foundation (NSF) or DARPA!
    – user48960
    Dec 15, 2015 at 0:48

There are many artworks which could be reproduced almost as good as the original today. So why should we value originals, be it first-edition Superman comics or vintage pens?

  • Sentimental value. The watch of my grandfather is nothing special, there are thousands like it, but only one belonged to my grandfather. So it is valuable to my family.
  • Historical value. When the owner of an artifact makes it into the history books or at least into popular culture, unrelated people might want to own momorabilia as well. There is only a limited supply of the real stuff, so the laws of supply and demand indicate that the price goes up.

We've been told that the Federation has no money, and that replicator technology resolved economic hardship. So what can Federation citizens use to impress each other? Non-replicated stuff -- like Joseph Sisko's gumbo or Picard's ancient Shakespeare edition.

The fact that a replicator could make a "perfect" copy only matters if you are afraid that the art dealer is a crook.

  • This gets into another issue, which was at the core of my question before I edited it because I needed to rethink it. Suppose someone wants Picard's ancient Shakespeare edition: what can he offer Picard? This is starting to sound like a barter economy. A barter economy in the 24th century? I need to think about that, and do some reading.
    – user48960
    Dec 13, 2015 at 17:47
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    @ab2, a barter or gift economy for theoretically useless luxuries and illegal goods (Romulan Ale ...) coupled with a communist or post-scarcity economy for staples.
    – o.m.
    Dec 13, 2015 at 19:28

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