The art market in our country is booming and is worth crores. This has led to works of senior artists being forged and sold as originals, raking in huge profits for unscrupulous dealers and gallery owners
By Shobha John
As you admire a Manjit Bawa painting, you take in the vibrant colors, the graphic figure and the clean and simple lines. The yellow, white and red colors in this untitled painting are so typically Bawa’s. And so it comes as a shock to know that it was probably a fake which was going to be auctioned in Mumbai on March 21-22. But then, this is not the first time an attempt was made to sell a fake artwork in the booming Indian art market, estimated to be around Rs 1,500 crore.
With paintings of senior artists being sold for lakhs and in some cases, crores, fakes too are raking in good amounts. With so much moolah to be made, duplicity and forgery are common and usually done by unscrupulous galleries and auction houses. The more renowned an artist, the greater the chance that his style will be copied. These include celebrated painters such as MF Husain, SH Raza, FN Souza, Jagdish Swaminathan, Raja Ravi Varma, Jamini Roy, Nandalal Bose, Ganesh Pyne, Ramkinkar Baij, Anjolie Ela Menon and Arpana Caur to name a few.
But how much of the art being bought is for the love of it is a moot question. In an increasingly materialist world where wannabees want to showcase their acquisitions, art is hot property, understanding be damned.
Attempts to sell fake paintings have often been challenged, with claims and counterclaims being thrown around. In the present case, an attempt was made to sell this Bawa painting (facing page) and this was challenged by art dealer Asif Kamal, CEO of Alturaash, a Dubai-based art house. What aroused his suspicion, he claimed, was that the posture of the body in the painting was all wrong. “The hands and the fingers and the turban are not typical Bawa,” Kamal told India Legal from Dubai.
Aggrieved over this duplicity, he sent a legal notice to Tushar Sethi, CEO of Asta Guru, the auction house selling the painting. The notice said that the art work in question was “misleading and fabricated” and hence should be withdrawn from the auction. It advised Sethi to apologize to the public for putting up a fabricated and fake art work for auction. Though no apology was forthcoming, Lot 45 (the catalogue number) which had Bawa’s painting—“Untitled, 41×30 Inches, year 2001”—was withdrawn.
In some cases, auction houses themselves lack knowledge about art works, Kamal said. “But as they are pretending to sell an original painting, their prices will be equal to it unlike the grey market where one can get a painting cheap. I would like Indian art to reach the level of European art so that our art works get the right prices.”
Kamal said that an original Manjit Bawa could fetch anything between Rs 80 lakh to Rs 1.2 crore. But in 2014, when he was offered a fake for Rs 5 lakh, he was shocked. “After 2000, a Manjit Bawa painting is like gold. When I asked the seller for the painting’s history, paper trail, receipt, etc, he said he couldn’t provide it but if I paid him money, he could get a letter of authenticity and pro-venance (history of ownership). This clearly shows there is a nexus between gallery owners and those making these fakes. Also, I could actually smell the paint, which means it was new. But the seller assured me that a special treatment could be done to make the art work look old and authentic. I said I wasn’t interested.”
Tushar Sethi, on his part, admitted to India Legal that he had got a notice from Kamal. “As a doubt was raised, we withdrew this Bawa painting. I am in the process of verifying Asif’s claims of it being a fake by getting it authenticated by one of Bawa’s assistants. And I am also sending a notice to Kamal’s lawyer.”
Unfortunately, famous international auction houses too have tried to sell fakes. Kamal also challenged Christie’s when he found fakes in their December 2015 auction of SH Raza’s “Bindu” and an untitled work by Jagdish Swaminathan. “The matter is in court,” Kamal said. However, Christie’s had then said it stood by the painting.
Similarly, on June 18, 2007, two works of Jamini Roy were to be auctioned by Bon-ham’s auction in San Francisco, but they were withdrawn when Mukul Dey Archives “Chitralekha” told them these were fakes. In 2006, Christie’s again withdrew six works of Indian contemporary artists due to doubts about their authenticity. Sotheby’s too withdrew some works in an auction that year.
Renu Modi, the owner of Gallery Espace, one of the leading art galleries in Delhi, said that she kept getting fakes all the time. “I get 2-3 every month. Whenever I am doubtful about a painting, I either ask the artists themselves, collectors or experts on various painters to authenticate it. Earlier, the Bengal School of Art had many fakes, especially Jamini Roys which flooded the market, leading to a crash but now it is getting revived again,” she said.
It’s a Fake World
Instances of art being faked:
-On March 9, 2008, Shyamsunder Desai, the owner of Sahil Art Gallery, Colaba, was arrested for trying to sell a fake painting of Subodh Gupta.
-In 2004, Hamid Safi, assistant of Anjolie Ela Menon, was arrested for producing fakes of her work.
-In 1998, an art collector bought a Ganesh Pyne from a gallery in Mumbai. When the artist was contacted by the buyer, he confirmed it was a fake.
-In 1998, two of Ajoy Ghose’s “Chaitanya” paintings were listed in a Christie’s catalogue as Nandalal Bose’s, with his signature being replaced with a scrawl that read Nando. Their sale was revoked later.
So how are fakes actually done? Key elements from an original painting or many of the same artist are taken and placed in different parts of a new canvas or an original is copied without the signature of the artist or another medium is used in a new canvas.
Most of the time, fakes are art works which copy the style of famous artists rather than an actual painting of theirs, said Sunita Budhiraja, CEO, Kindlewood Communications, who deals with art dealers. For example, some years back, a Mumbai-based art dealer rejected an MF Husain painting because the legs and knees of the horses seemed awry and the shape of the manes was so unlike Husain’s style. Others judge a master by his brush strokes or even the thickness of the paint. Another sign of a fake is if the work is being sold for far less that an artist’s current rate. In some cases, even the signature of the artist raises suspicions. There is the reported case of businessman Harsh Goenka, chairman of RPG Enterprises and one of the biggest art collectors in India, who was being sold a Husain painting. He reportedly asked art dealer Dadiba Pundole to check it, who told him that while Husain’s English signature on the painting matched, his signature in Hindi didn’t.
So how does the art world function? Can artists sell their works directly?
Budhiraja said that it is not possible for artists to get into the time-consuming business of selling their paintings directly. So they get into contracts with galleries to sell their paintings. Galleries then sell the paintings to private collectors or auction houses.
Auction houses usually don’t take paintings which have no proper paper work. “This includes when it was painted, how many times it changed hands, etc. They also emp-loy experts to authenticate paintings,” said Kamal. Charges for authenticating a painting can go up to Rs 10 lakh in some cases.
There have been many cases of fakes surfacing . There was a case in 2006 when auction house Osians produced a work of Bikash Bhattacharjee, which turned out to be fake. It was withdrawn. There was also the case of Arpana Caur and her “Nanak” painting which was faked and being sold for Rs 4 lakh. Caur reportedly said about this painting which showed Nanak with his head tilted and a rosary in his hand: “The forger got everything right, except the face. The expressions are flawed.” There was also the case of Raza going to Dhoomimal Gallery in 2009 to open an exhibition of his works and being shocked to see that all the works, except a couple, were fakes. In 2011, Kolkata-based Government College of Art had an exhibition of Tagore paintings where all were alleged to be fake. The principal of the college was suspended.
Some of the fakes are done by assistants of senior painters who break the trust reposed in them. When these painters ask their aides to do some bits of it, they end up learning the style and technique of the painter, forge his signature and make a killing through fakes. For example, in 2004, Anjolie Ela Menon’s assistant Hamid Safi was found selling his work as hers. He was arrested.
Anjolie Ela Menon told India Legal that the main recourse left to painters when they find a fake of theirs is to report to the police. “There is no specific law dealing with fake art, though there should be one. There should also be a regulatory body which deals with these issues,” she said. Also, auction houses should put in more rigor to study various painters and their style. “But that is not really happening. Some dealers are hand-in-glove with the fakers,” she added.
The fact is that very few artists keep a tab on what they have done over the years. So when a fake surfaces, few go to courts to settle the issue. But, when independent dealers and collectors ask them to authenticate a painting of theirs, most do. “And that is why buyers trust big galleries such as Vadehera, bCA Galleries and Gallery Espace to sell genuine paintings. Often, artists are officially associated with these galleries,” said Budhiraja. Some galleries which have come under the scanner in recent years are Dhoomimal, Bid & Hammer and Christie’s.
Though Raja Ravi Varma has often been faked, it is interesting to note that his brother, C Raja Raja Varma, who was his secretary and assistant, kept a diary of their travels and activities. This gives a good idea of his paintings and can be used to figure out how authentic a work is. Each artist’s work is judged over a period of time. And a buyer would do well to study the style of the artist whose painting he wants to buy lest he gets duped.
Unfortunately, the legal remedies for such forgery are few. While there is the Copyright Act to tackle the issue of paintings which are copied, in the case of a totally new art masquerading as an original, it will come under forgery.
Kamal, like Menon said it would be best if there was a regulatory body comprising art historians, curators and other such experts who can authenticate paintings and where artists can register their works. “Buyers are becoming more aware of this issue and are learning more about the paintings they want to buy. They should also take expert advice and even contact the artist if possible,” he said. Also, it would be in the artist’s best interest if he documents his art works.
After all, better safe than sorry.