Beyond the News: India’s antiques, neglected at home but treasured abroad

For years, activists in Chandigarh have pointed to the negligence and lack of maintenance that has led to many antiques disappearing from the city and appearing at international auctions.

Written by Pooja Pillai | Updated: September 4, 2017 7:47 am
Furniture designed by Corbusier at City Museum, Chandigarh. (File Photo)

Last week, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence wrote to the Punjab government calling for action against a senior government official for alleged transactions with a businessman accused of smuggling Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret furniture from Chandigarh. It highlights a contrast: such antiques are highly valued by collectors across the world but largely ignored in India. For years, activists in Chandigarh have pointed to the negligence and lack of maintenance that has led to many of Corbusier and Jeanneret’s chairs, bookshelves, benches, tables, lamps and other fixtures disappearing from the city and appearing at international auctions, where they routinely fetch high prices.

Chandigarh furniture’s lure

Leading architect Le Corbusier began designing furniture in 1928, in collaboration with the French architect Charlotte Perriand and, subsequently, his cousin the Swiss architect Pierre Jeanneret. Highly prized by collectors everywhere, these pieces now fetch astronomical prices whenever they appear in auctions. On these grounds alone, the furniture designed by Corbusier and Jeanneret for Chandigarh would have been valuable.

What makes them additionally coveted is their provenance. Even as it was being built, Chandigarh was hailed as Le Corbusier’s masterpiece. Most leading collectors thus want a piece of it, and the best way is to acquire one of the many pieces of original furniture designed specifically for the city.

Shanay Jhaveri, editor of the book Chandigarh is in India and assistant curator of South Asian Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, says the allure of Chandigarh’s furniture lies in the promise the city once held as the future of a newly independent India. “We can go back to Sunil Khilnani’s suggestion, made in the Idea of India, that the city of Chandigarh itself never achieved the cosmopolitanism that was hoped for it and rather became — and I quote him — ‘a museum piece in need of protection from its own violently quarreling citizens and ravages of the climate’. These chairs, sofas, desks, tables so carry in them the Utopian promise of mid-20th century modernity and its transnational affiliations which are so absent from our present moment that perhaps it is for these impulses that collectors long after them.”

High prices

Antique dealers, led by Parisian Eric Touchaleaume — who is sometimes referred to as the Indiana Jones of antique furniture and is a recognised expert on Corbusier and Jeanneret’s Chandigarh legacy — snapped up much of the furniture during the last 20 years as lack of maintenance coupled with ignorance about its true value led it to being junked or sold for as little as Rs 33 a table. The items bought by international dealers — including Touchaleaume’s vast collection — soon began to appear in auction catalogues, with reserve prices running into several thousand dollars. In its Design sale in New York last June, for example, the auction house Bonhams listed the teak ‘Demountable Desk’ designed by Jeanneret for Chandigarh’s Secretariat for $20,000-30,000. Jeanneret’s iconic ‘V-Leg’ chairs have found a home in the collections of many enthusiasts, including socialite Kourtney Kardashian who is known to have a dozen of these chairs. A set of eight of these V-Leg chairs were sold in the Bonhams Design auction for $21,250 while a library table fetched $62,500.

The prices that Chandigarh’s furniture has fetched at international auctions have caught the attention of many Chandigarh activists who have been lobbying with the government to recognise the value of the city’s heritage and stop the sale of these items abroad.

However, the few times that Indian authorities did intervene and tried to stop the auctions from taking place, receipts were produced to show that the furniture had been bought legally. In February 2010, the UT administration tried to stop an auction of Chandigarh furniture by Artcurial of Paris but had to back out when an investigation proved the furniture had been acquired legally.

The following year, Indian authorities attempted to stall the sale of Chandigarh furniture by the American auction house Wright. Wright not only refused to halt the sale but also published a notice that highlighted the Indian authorities’ lack of interest in the furniture, which had led to it being sold off as junk in the first place. The notice quoted an official letter from 1986, written by Chandigarh’s then chief architect and secretary, architecture, that said, “Sanction is hereby accorded under Rule 10, Schedule VII of the Delegation of Financial Power Rules, to declare the articles of stores as unserviceable and their disposal at public auction.” Wright wrote, “We believe that the Indian government does not have legal rights to these works, particularly given the fact that the Indian government thought these works were ‘junk’ and authorized the sale of these works at public auction.”

Law & heritage

Chandigarh’s furniture heritage is in a legal twilight zone, in fact, since it is now recognised by everyone — including the authorities — as being valuable, yet remains bereft of any actual protection under Indian law.

Activist Ajay Jagga, an advocate, says he has approached various authorities on the matter, including Chandigarh High Court and the CBI. “I wrote to the Ministry of Culture that since this is a matter of national heritage, they must find some way of declaring these furniture to be ‘art treasures’. That would mean that they can’t be sold out of the country,” Jagga said.

He approached the ministry twice on this matter; on both occasions the Archaeological Survey of India, to which the matter was forwarded, declared itself unable to do anything about it. “…These matters are to be dealt under provisions of prevailing legislations of the country,” the ASI wrote in reply to Jagga’s last letter, originally sent to the PMO. “As already intimated earlier that the Antiquities and Art Treasures (AAT) Act, 1972 deals with the objects define as antiquities under provisions of the above act. As per the Section 2 of the Act, in addition to the other criteria the object should be in existence for not less then 100 years. Therefore, the artefacts to be declare as antiquity which are less then 100 years old required amendment in existing legislation.”

Jagga says this does not mean the furniture cannot be classified as ‘art treasures’. The AAT Act defines an ‘art treasure’ as “..any human work of art, not being an antiquity, declared by the Central Government by notification in the Official Gazette, to be an art treasure for the purposes of this Act having regard to its artistic or aesthetic value”. Besides, says Jagga, “according to Article 49 of the Constitution, it is the duty of the state to protect objects of national importance”.

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