In the world of forged art, there has been a marked improvement in the quality of workmanship, the attention to provenance and complicit participation of market figures
THERE ARE INSTANCES OF CHILDREN AND ASSOCIATES OF MASTERS, FLOODING THE MARKET WITH INAUTHENTIC WORKS, WITH CERTIFICATION THAT SHOWS EVERYTHING IS IN ORDER. SIMILARLY, ONE MIGHT ENCOUNTER VISIBLY ENFEEBLED YET THEIR STUDIOS CHURN OUT FRESH PAINTINGS.
Ireceived an email earlier this week alerting me about a profile on a leading matrimonial website. It was created under my name and featured pictures from my personal Instagram. Besides that, in an atrociously worded biography it listed me as a Punjabi civil engineer based in the United States. This could just as well have been me on an ardent quest for a bride. It was hard to imagine that someone had in fact created a fake profile and was masquerading as me.
This invasion of my personal identity made me revisit a perennially pressing professional concern—that of art works by our leading masters that are actively faked.
My earliest memory of encountering a fake artwork was during a visit to Lajpat Nagar when I was in middle school. A frame shop had rather blatantly placed a large format canvas featuring, what appeared to even my relatively untrained eyes, a shaky Xerox of MF Husain’s quintessential galloping horses. The work was being negotiated by a heavily bejewelled lady, who very obstinately was standing firm on her price. In a matter of minutes, less than the time taken by my parents to buy me a school winter (oversized) uniform, she had purchased a painting created in the likeness of one of India’s most recognised masters, at what I’m certain was a whisker of its original price, with strict instructions to have it delivered before lunch the next day at her Defence Colony “kothi”.
I’ve recounted this instance on a few occasions since. Was this work a forgery? Yes, and no. It was not likely being offered as a Husain, and from what I very hazily recall, did not feature a signature of the master. It certainly would not have had any documents offered along with, but it was purchased with the clear intent of suggesting to the following day’s kitty party coterie that the living room housed a Husain.
In the years since, I have witnessed the evolution of fakes in the industry. Over the past 15 years, covering the bulk of my career in the art world, there has worryingly, and expectedly, been a marked improvement in the quality of workmanship, the attention to provenance, complicit participation of key market figures and the employ of forged documentation.
The most despicable is when a senior artist’s family, or worse yet, the artist her/himself is directly involved in the manufacturing and validation of forgeries. There, unfortunately, are instances of children and associates of masters now managing entities, estates and foundations in their names, flooding the market with inauthentic works, with certification that shows everything is in order. Similarly, one might encounter visibly enfeebled yet their studios churn out fresh paintings.
A particularly disturbing development is that of artists and their kin refusing to authenticate, or worse still, declare absolutely genuine works as inauthentic, because they do not stand to gain financially by validating them.
A close second are market professionals: dealers, galleries, advisors and auction houses that support and foster such activity. Some among these are known to let a rotten apple enter the basket every once in a while, while there are some that have built an empire selling fakes. A few were once respected names and used that stature to garner quick spoils, selling, in some cases, instantly telling and extremely shoddy duplicates.
The third section are collectors, with some erstwhile greats serving as fronts for unscrupulous dealers, using their established pedigree as an unchallenged ground to liquidate junk.
Even the once apparently pristine Western front has fallen. There are fakes filtering in from various parts of the globe, well beyond Lajpat Nagar. In Paris last week, a local dealer offered, for my consideration, a set of “rare” early works by SH Raza. The entire set, it was fairly easily determined following my firm’s diligence, was of remarkably good quality copies. Fakes are now making their way in from foreign shores as well, in particular for artists with a history of an international practice including Raza, Husain and Souza, among others.
What can one do for protection from this hazard? I will dwell upon this in the next column, but the one simple point that should serve as your guiding star is avoid gullibility at all costs. Befriend someone with an unassailable and unimpeachable reputation. There are those within the profession who have steered clear of any object that is remotely dubious. Find someone within this bracket and make her/him your go-to prior to making any decision. All market insiders know the credible from the shysters.