> Confronting the Issue of Fake Art

(original version of a story I wrote for Mumbai Mirror, which was cut down to 400 words, but I will complain about that some other day. FULL DISCLOSURE: I am working on launching an art registry service, ART ID, much to the chagrin of several gallerists and power brokers in the industry, who might yet succeed in quashing my best intentions )

Buyer Beware
How to avoid becoming a victim of art fraud by Amitabh Nanda

Fabulous Fakes and a History of Art Forgery J.L.Dolice 2001,2003

Fabulous Fakes and a History of Art Forgery J.L.Dolice 2001,2003

The next time you’re approached about a fantastic investment in an Indian work of art, BEWARE, because it is more than possible that you are buying a fake.

According to an alarming estimate made by Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, up to 40% of all the works in circulation globally are really forgeries, and in the last few years, a massive number of fakes have seeped into the local art market.

Kolkata is widely known to be the hub of the trade, filled with “factories of fakes”, where unemployed fine-arts graduates and unsuccessful artists are commissioned by an organized forgery mafia to create counterfeits of the works of famous painters, which are then sold all over the world for massive profits.

There are few established artists today who do not have a story or two to tell about how their lives have been affected by counterfeit art.

Certainly the most amusing and shocking of these anecdotes is the recent case of Sahiil Art Gallery in Mumbai, whose owner had gone to the extent of circulating a fraudulently created image of the artist Subodh Gupta, posing by a painting purported to be by him, which was a fake and which was being offered by the gallery for Rs 80 lakh. Sahiil’s website, accessed mainly by clueless foreign buyers, states that, “More and more people are accessing Sahiilart site (sic) for genuine paintings.”

Arpana Caur first realized that her work was being faked when she saw a copy of one of her own paintings hanging in the background of a television serial set, and upon further investigation, she discovered that her works were being copied and sold in huge quantities not just in India, but also in New York.

Distinguishing an original from a fake is often difficult as the disparities are as subtle as the methods employed by the counterfeiters – who have become so sophisticated as to use dated materials, forged certificates of authenticity and have even begun to involve the families of artists in their con game.

In 1998, socialite and collector Nisha Jamval was very nearly fooled while trying to find a few Souzas for her collection. She approached the artist’s son Patrick to ask for his help in finding his father’s work, but her suspicions were immediately kindled when he offered her 57 different works for as little as Rs.20,000 apiece. To verify the authenticity of these paintings, she then contacted Souza himself, and much to her surprise, he wrote back to inform her that all 57 paintings were fake.

A similar sense of dubiousness surrounds much of Jamini Roy’s work. It is well known that a few years ago his son was caught selling fakes of his work after forging his father’s signature, and recently, even his grandson has been accused of falsely authenticating works of questionable antecedence in exchange for personal profit. Harsh Goenka, who is a celebrated patron of the arts, has gone on record to say that he has stopped buying Jaminis for this very reason.

Occasionally, even artists themselves are implicated in these scandalous dealings. The most startling of these cases involves Anjolie Ela Menon, who was accused by Bombay’s Gallery7 of trying to pass off a copy painted by her assistant as her own work. While Menon denied these charges vehemently, and threatened to take the gallery to court and sue for libel, the evidence suggesting her guilt was quite damning, including a video aired on a TV news channel in which her assistant admitted to regularly completing her work for her.

Because they are generally uninformed about the art they purchase, buyers are ultimately left at the mercy of the seller to determine the authenticity and quality of their purchases – but these parties face very little incentive to actively pursue and call out fakes, especially as the chances of discovery are so slim. Nevertheless, even the leading auction houses and art experts have been discovered holding forgeries.

In 2001, Manjit Bawa refused to acknowledge a painting being sold by Christie’s accredited to him as an original. As a result, they had to withdraw it for sale, and a year before that, Ajoy Ghosh found, much to his surprise, that two of his paintings were being marketed in their catalogue as the works of Nandlal Bose.

Two years ago, at an auction organized by Osian’s in Delhi, a fake was very nearly sold for Rs.30 lakh, under the misapprehension that it was a work painted by Bhikash Bhattacharjee. At the last moment before it could be sold, another artist, Sanjay Bhattacharyya, who was one of Bhattacharjee’s disciples, identified it as a fake and much to the collective bewilderment of the bidding public, Osian’s were forced to pull it off the stage mid auction.

The embarrassing case of the Gallery Espace Hores still remains unsolved, with defendant Renu Modi fighting the allegation, made by the daughter of Somnath Hore that an entire collection of 20 sculptures being offered by the gallery and purported to be by him were fake. Neville Tuli, of Osian’s, rose up to defend Modi by claiming that, “I’m convinced that there’s no intent to defraud. She’s done all that she can do, but always, genuine mistakes are done by anyone.”

There are two very real ways in which the art community can act immediately to curb this rampant explosion of forged artworks. The first, most efficacious way is to promote the spread transparency in the Indian art market, and to encourage the growth of a centralized institutional mechanism that will administrate galleries and dealers, and punish those who flagrantly trade in reproductions. An initiative of this sort has been in the offing for almost a decade now.

The second way is to encourage the spread of formal and standardised documentation, where artists and collectors alike publicly register their works, and thus create a database of authentic art against which forgeries and stolen works can be compared. Art registries also serve the important function of breaking down intellectual barriers, and take the control of establishing proper provenance – or chain of custody – away from the hands experts or even the artists themselves, both of whom are now charging an arm and a leg for the task of authentication, and place it back into the hands of ordinary people, therefore allowing even those who cannot afford to hire experts to be able to check and double-check the authenticity of their artworks.

Today, as the popularity of Indian Art continues to grow exponentially, the very lucrative business of forgery continues to grow with it, and unless palpable measures are not taken soon to curtail this unfortunate side effect, it threatens to permanently damage the credibility of the genre.

5 comments

  1. “Kolkata is widely known to be the hub of the trade, filled with “factories of fakes”, where unemployed fine-arts graduates and unsuccessful artists are commissioned by an organized forgery mafia to create counterfeits of the works of famous painters, which are then sold all over the world for massive profits.”
    Would like to know the addresses of these fake factories.There are very few buyers in Kolkata,the originals don’t sale who will buy fakes.Most of the Kolkata artists are under priced,after Jayshree and Chitrovanu no young artist has been auction listed.Moreover most of the fakes have been traced in Delhi and Mumbai,not a single fake painting has been found in Kolkata,atleast in last few years.

  2. whattothink

    Ravi
    Thanks for your response. I suspect that it is your respect for the significant artistic traditions of Bengal that has moved you to question my assertions – and your own response is very much part of my thesis, which is:
    1. The art market is severely hobbled by an asymmetry of information – about the wide variety of work available, the originality and quality of work offered, the antecedents of its ownership, trading value, stock of a particular artist’s work in existence, etc.
    2. Most of this information rests with the various trading parties (galleries, auction houses, etc), who keep it locked away as a source of business advantage, giving them (temporary) power to orchestrate the market for the artists they represent.
    3. Since the buying public is largely unaware of the state of the market – they blindly go with ‘safe’ bets and follow the big names, whom they see garnering record prices at auctions.
    4. Fraudsters are able to step into this gap and take advantage of the greed of the buyers and their lack of knowledge – by peddling fakes, copies, poor quality works, etc
    5. The fraudsters are also able to prey on the vast majority of marginalised artists, who have learned how to paint by studying the masters (I have a quote from a Santiniketan artist who claims that this introspective and formal style of learning is widely adopted there), who now find themselves without a source of patronage and income, and who can easily knock off a famous painting
    6. With everyone implicated in this vicious cycle, there is an extreme unwillingness to bell the cat and risk being associated with a fake. Even the buyers don’t insist on proper cover, hoping to pass off their works while the market remains hot.
    7. The floodgates are open and soon there are more fakes than real paintings – this happened with Jamini Roy’s work.
    8. A speculative bubble has emerged, which, when it collapses, will drag down the entire market – and those starving artists in Kolkatta will at least be able to reconcile themselves that their works are now selling for the same value as the once hot artists

    Again, I didn’t mean to single out Kolkatta, although there is a lot of anecdotal evidence and press about the existence of such a localized industry. Indeed there are even reports that the ‘artists villages’ in China are coming on tap to replicate the work of popular Indian artists.

    I only hope that your outrage can be channeled into something meaningful so that the rights and livelihood of all gifted artists can be protected – through informed appreciation, fair use, perhaps even a royalty system that allows them to participate in the success of their work – and transparency plus democracy of information is the first step towards that goal.

  3. Nalini S Malaviya

    I read the edited vn in Bg M!
    You have a good point and having an unbiased third party would help increase the transparency in the market. But, then right now there are very regulations that apply to the art mart.
    One hopes to see systems coming in place, but the biggest challenge, the way I see it, will be from the major players in the market!

    Cheers
    Nalini

  4. whattothink

    Nalini
    Are you saying that the regulations are already in place?
    I know SEBI has mentioned the need for them, and there have been many abortive attempts by the luminaries of the art trade to get something going – but I know of nothing concrete that has emerged.
    I will be posting a brilliant (no guesses for who came up with it) proposed solution on the indianartnews forum– will leave a copy here.
    Let me know what you think – and thanks for your reply.
    Amitabh

  5. whattothink

    [from IAN forum – possibly the world’s longest comment]
    Hi Deepak
    I guess it’s time to step up and make my shameless pitch.

    I’m in the process of putting up a free, online database for Indian art, at http://www.artid.in, which aims to address the issues around disclosure, intellectual property rights, buyer-protection and risk mitigation currently plaguing the market.

    Listed below are some specific barriers that stand in the way of industry-wide cooperation, and how we aim to tackle them:

    1. Confidentiality of information: The various trading entities rightfully protect the identity of their buyers and their arrangements with artists – not least because it gives them a defensible competitive position but also because clients sometimes insist upon it. It would take something as dramatic as a declaration amnesty from the IT department to legitimize vast troves of priceless art currently lying ‘orphaned’ and hidden away in private hands.

    >Our service is not for those who (for whatever reason) want absolute discretion. We appeal to the larger majority of artists, art market makers and buyers, who are today ready to make transparent transactions, seeing the benefits of trading publicly. A known work is quite simply more valuable.

    2. Authentication process: Unfortunately, neither an artist’s imprimatur nor the validation of connoisseurs nor even scientific analysis is foolproof in establishing the identity of a work of art and conferring value upon it. The current system of authentication is also expensive and directly prone to abuse because it is managed by sellers, who are ill placed to issue reliable statements about the merit of the art they buy and sell.

    >We start out by focusing on the next best thing to authentication – provenance. Using a simple online system of verification, buyers are able to trace and document the history of their work, adding a great deal of value to their holdings. Any other information they are able to verify is also recorded. Artists can also register work at the point of creation to protect their oeuvre and market. Further, the statements they collect are legal tender, as opposed to the materials handed out by dealers, which often amount to no more than an expression of opinion. Our process is inexpensive, as it does not presuppose verification to be a process involving paid experts (although buyers could resort to these if they wish). And finally by verifying, documenting and permanently attaching available knowledge surrounding creation and provenance, content and context, our database will lead to a more realistic and vital appreciation for the ‘objective’ value of a work of art.

    3. Open standards – There are currently no agreed-upon regulations to support the art trade. This is largely due to the shortsightedness and paranoia of market participants, who do not see the need for collaboration. While we idle, SEBI has repeatedly mentioned the need for regulation. Clearly the option to self-police vs to be governed is upon us.

    >Our hope is that we have provided a holistic cataloguing system, which can convince the various intermediaries to agree on standardized bona fides and become accountable for the work they promote. We have used the ObjectID protocol, designed by the Getty Institute and deployed by museums around the world to arrive at our codification system. We place the onus of populating the database and assigning legitimacy on the buyers themselves. And we have an open standard, which can develop with the market. In its spirit the system resembles a wiki project for Indian art – collaborative yet independent from the trading process, therefore able to provide transparency and impartiality.

    4. Democracy of information – The current market structure deservedly gives power to the experts but also encourages manipulation by short-term prospectors, excessive arbitrage, uninformed and herd investing, etc. This situation provides all the conditions for the development of a bubble – which could prove disastrous to the market.

    >A public database, such as ours, will help art enthusiasts get a more realistic view of supply and demand, quality and value. This will allow any participant to trade with the benefit of knowledge and reduce the opportunity for manipulation.

    We fully realize that our solution might not work for everyone – but we hope that it represents a panacea for those who want to draw a line in the sand and start dealing securely, and to help create the basis for a strong local art market – based on tenets of creativity, quality and even scarcity.

    We should have the database up and running in a few weeks time. In the meantime, I thank you for providing me with this forum and look forward to your comments and advice. You can reply to this post or mail me at amitabh.nanda@artid.in

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