By Indrajit Basu
KOLKATA - An unprecedented global demand for Indian art, both old and contemporary, has given rise to a flourishing fake-art market, with artists discovering, much to their horror, that their works are being forged and reproduced - at times even brilliantly executed - and sold as original art both at home and overseas.
"Indian art is selling like hotcakes at overseas auctions," says R B Bhaskaran of Lalit Kala Academy, an art-promoting institution that is a wing of India's Ministry of Information, Broadcasting and Culture, adding, "Certain agencies spread across the country are systematically indulging in faking paintings and other works of art like sculptures and antiques." And according to Sharan Apparao, owner of the Chennai-based Apparao Gallery, "Every year, about 20-30 fakes of important paintings and 50-100 fakes of [less] important paintings get released for the markets globally."
Imitation may be the best form of flattery, but for Ajoy Ghose, a Kolkata-based artist, paintings that have been reproduced as copies of his originals certainly do not paint a pretty picture. Recently, Ghose discovered that two of his paintings featured in the Christies catalogue of Indian and Southeast Asian art were listed as the works of Nandalal Bose, a famous artist from the Indian state of West Bengal patronized by both non-resident Indian and international art investors. Ghose alleges that his signature had been replaced with a scrawl that read "Nando" - the signature of Bose. Although Ghose got the sale revoked, he is now stunned and says he had heard of paintings of dead Bengal School artists being faked, but he was amazed at "forgers having turned audacious enough to fudge the works of living artists as well".
But Ghose is just one of the many Indian artists who are going through the trauma of seeing their works depreciated by the sudden onslaught of fudged art flooding the Indian, as well as international, markets. From living and more sought-after artists such as Satish Gujral, M F Hussain, Anjolie Ela Menon, Tyab Mehta, Manjit Bawa, Arpana Caur, Bikash Bhattacharya, Sanjay Bhattacharya, Ganesh Pyne and the likes of Raja Ravi Verma, Jamini Roy, Amrita Shergil, Nandalal Bose, F N Souza, Jogen Chowdhury, Nikhil Biswas and Ram Kinkar who are no longer alive, works of Indian artist are being reproduced with unrelenting dexterity.
The big business of art forgery
Faking art is a global phenomenon and it is not new in India. In fact, the business of organized forging emerged in the country almost two decades ago. However, "Back then the value of paintings was relatively low and the fake market was not lucrative," says Manoj Khosla, an Indian art dealer. "But now with the sudden demand of Indian art, prices of original works have begun to spiral up and the business of forgeries has gained new tentacles."
India's art industry is conservatively estimated to bring in about US$20 million to $25 million in overall yearly sales. Indeed, the price of Indian art has never been so high. For instance, works by famous Indian artists can easily sell for more than $100,000 at auctions in New York and London, and at times even exceed $300,000. Roughly 10 auctions are conducted globally each year, including those by Christies, Sotheby's, Bonhams and Phillips. According to Victoria Cheung of Christies Hong Kong, the recent successes of Indian art in New York and London auctions have instilled a great deal of confidence in art buyers from Hong Kong, South Korea and Singapore. At conservative estimates, the average prices top Indian painters have fetched range between $50,000 and $70,000, a rise of more than 100% from two years back. Moreover, average lot prices have been rising too; they have increased by about 20% in the past six months for Christies and by a similar amount for Sotheby's.
Rameshwar Broota, head of the art department at Triveni Kala Sangam, a New Delhi-based art institute and gallery, says: "It is purely a question of supply and demand. The works of reputed artists are limited but there is a great demand for them. So forgery becomes very profitable."
Most artists blame the proliferating galleries for forgeries. "One gallery put up the fake of my best-known work, Ghara ," says Sanjay Bhattacharya, an artist from Bengal School. "The original depicted two earthen pots in a dark room with a stained-glass door. The copied painting was exactly the same, with one difference - there was a man in the forefront with some musical instrument. Another gallery ran an ad in a newspaper showing one of my watercolors forged in oil."
Satish Gujaral, one of the most sought-after Indian artists, says that "in order to survive - and for some to even thrive - many galleries have had to resort to such dubious business".
Admittedly, over the past two years, due to the sudden rise in consciousness of Indian art buyers, most of whom, according to Saryu Doshi, director of the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai, "can't appreciate art for art's sake but buy them to announce their place in the pecking order", India has seen more than 200 art galleries emerge.
However, a few gallery owners allege that sometimes artists and/or people close to them, like their assistants and relatives indulge in "unscrupulous activities" as well. For instance, the son of artist Jamini Roy was once caught selling fakes of his father's work with forged signatures some years back, and even his grandchildren are known to have authenticated fakes as his real works.
But the most stunning allegation of the involvement of an artist was made in May this year when Mumbai-based Gallery 7 accused internationally acclaimed artist Anjolie Ela Menon of having a hand in a fake painting sold in her name. The gallery claimed that one of Menon's works called Female Head was actually the work of her assistant Hamid, who admitted on a video-taped revelation that he often completes Menon's paintings, which Menon signs.
Menon has dismissed the charge as "garbage" calling the videotaped
evidence as a "cover-up" operation by the gallery to hide the fact that
they were selling a fake, and has even threatened to sue Gallery 7, this
incident has sent the art world in a tizzy.
Nevertheless, art dealers and gallery owners in Kolkata, the capital city of West Bengal, are considered the most notorious. The city, which is considered the hub for creativity and thus a haven for forgers, is reportedly dotted with "fake factories", where "out-of-work fine-arts graduates or down-and-out artists are commissioned by racketeers to make copies of the works of famous painters". Often they don't know where their copies will land up, and for a little more money, the dealers and owners bring in skilled signature forgers to put the finishing touch on the paintings.
Aided by technology, forging has even emerged as a fine art in itself. After viewing a reproduction of one of his own works, Sanjay Bhattacharya said: "The trade has become so polished that even I had difficulties in finding faults in them." Gallery owners, too, admit that although most have a good eye, the fakes are so rampant in the art market that it sometimes becomes difficult to tell.
According to Bhattacharya, a painting can be faked in four ways. One is copying it without the signature. The second is to change the medium - from oil to watercolors or vice versa. The third is to change the direction - for instance if in the original painting a person is standing on the right, the forger will put him on the left. And finally, there is the new trend of lifting different elements from different works of a single artist and incorporating them in one.
The proliferation of fakes is indeed a worrying pointer to art's overall state of disarray in India. Mumbai-based historian Neville Tuli, chairperson of Osian's Connoisseurs of Art - the first organization in India to establish an All India Authentication Committee for Contemporary Arts - says: "The issue is indicative of the growth of the market and its awareness but it also reveals the inadequacies in the infrastructure that supports art." He feels that fake art flourishes because there's an absence of any institutional mechanism for certifying original works. "There is a dearth of financial benchmarking, publications, etc that build the credibility of art," says Tuli.
Which is why, then, the increase in fake art has also given rise to a new business opportunity. Citibank's Citigold Wealth Management, for instance, has tied up with Sharan Apparao's Chennai-based Apparao Galleries to offer a "good deal" to its customers. The two will jointly hold exhibitions in India to "give an opportunity to our customers to buy the right stuff at the right price", says Aapparao. The duo will launch an art magazine for select Citibank customers, which will help readers understand more about the nuances of Indian art.
It's a start, but unlikely to put a dent in India's flourishing art-forgery business.
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