Until he was caught out for using the wrong paint for a Heinrich Campendonk in 2010, German hippie Wolfgang Beltracchi was one of the most successful art forgers in recent history. Actor Steve Martin had famously gone on to purchase his fake Campendonk in 2004 and his reproduction of Max Ernst had hung for months in a retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 2005. His forgeries were auctioned for millions of dollars at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. In prison with his wife and associate
Helen now, hundreds of his fakes of over 50 artists are suspected to be still in circulation in the market. They aren’t well-known copies of the works of the masters. Instead, these are compositions based on documented works whose whereabouts are unknown.
Art forgeries aren’t new-age, it’s only their scale that makes the difference. Beltracchi was at the top, but he was not alone. Across continents, and in India, forgeries have become an organised trade and continue to be rampant. Insiders say that the suspects are often suitcase dealers who chip in fakes between the originals, promising a good deal to an unsuspecting collector. The actual work is often a digital reproduction. An ingenious photographer is sent to take images of the original work in a gallery and submit raw files to the forger. Enlarged reproductions are then printed on canvas and painted over, leaving the original signature intact. Authentication certificates can then easily be manipulated with the help of Photoshop. A work costing not more than a few thousands ends up selling for several lakhs. “One of my Husains was forged in this manner. I discovered it when a Delhi gallerist, who knew the original was with me, once called to say the work had come to her for sale. She was being offered a fake,” says Vikram Bachhawat, director of Kolkata-based Aakriti Art Gallery.
With prices of art skyrocketing in India, the business of fakes too is getting slicker. So MF Husain might be among the most prolific Indian artists, but so are his forgers. In fact, SH Raza, FN Souza and Husain are reportedly the most faked artists in India. In the Bengal School, the stalwarts Jamini Roy, the three Tagores (Abanindranath, Rabindranath and Gaganendranath), Hemendranath Mazumdar, Nandalal Bose and Ramkinkar Baij have spawned a thousand fakes. Students are often part of the nexus, unwittingly or otherwise. While some struggling artists and young students attempt forgery to make a quick buck, others are duped when asked to copy masters in the classroom. With signatures added to the near-perfect copies, the works are peddled for trade. “For talented artists, it’s easy to fake watercolours produced in the early Bengal School… It is also easy to copy flat colours, like the strong lines in some of Husainsaab’s works,” says Delhi-based artist Anjolie Ela Menon. She makes a distinction between two kinds of fakes — works in the style of the master with their forged signature and actual copies with signatures. “In my case, several works from the second category are floating in the market,” she says, adding that it is hard to derive a long-term solution.
Artist Arpana Caur agrees. “Artists can’t be expected to trace their fakes and fight criminal cases. Their place is in the studio, not the court of law,” she says.
Seated in her studio in New Delhi’s Siri Fort Institutional Area, overlooking the greens outside, she is surrounded by her canvases. She has painstakingly worked on them for months, barring two of them depicting Nanak, a subject she says is closest to her heart. These are fakes she spotted four years ago, one with a Delhi-based art gallerist, another with a businessman. Each sold for Rs 4 lakh. “The forger got everything right, except the face. The expressions are flawed,” says Caur, looking at the Nanak with its head tilted and rosary beads in hand. It was sheer coincidence that the original had come to Caur from Singapore at the time when she discovered the fake. “I had forgotten to sign the original, so the owner had sent it me to be signed. I realised then these other two must be fakes,” she says.
Several gallerists in Delhi admit to having come across fakes of works by stalwart Progressive artist Raza, but nothing can measure up to the time when the master turned up to open his solo of early works at Delhi’s Dhoomimal Gallery in 2009, only to discover that all works, with the exception of a couple, were fakes. “At this age, it’s extremely upsetting; one wants to spend these years in peace,” the artist had said in dismay. His close aide reveals that several fakes have been discovered since the Dhoomimal incident, making the abstractionist wary. Raza now obliges collectors who request him for authentication certificates. He also maintains a record of the sale of his works. “He maintains bills for his paintings from the 1960s,” says the aide.
Information on his sale will soon also be available in the Catalogue Raisonné, being brought out by Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery. Documentation of the works of artists Manjit Bawa and Tyeb Mehta is also underway. The Raza Foundation, meanwhile, has the responsibility of having the last word on his work. The checks, however, aren’t foolproof. After all, internationally now, several authentication boards — including those of Andy Warhol and Keith Haring — have disbanded due to increasing number of legal suits challenging their verdicts.
The culprit is in the details. Unsung Bengal artist Ajoy Ghose will ironically always be remembered for the Christie’s goof-up in 1998, when the auction house featured his paintings as works of Nandalal Bose. Ghose alleged that his signature had been replaced with “Nando”, the signature of Bose. The sale was revoked, but the incident is not the only time Christie’s got it wrong. In 2001, Manjit Bawa had his work removed from an auction, attributing it to his apprentice Mahinder Soni. This triggered a debate long-pending — are all works of the artist really theirs? Is it the signature that matters? Many well-known works of art by masters such as Titian and Rembrandt are known to have been partly executed by studio assistants. Menon had a very public spat with her assistant Hamid when he sold his work as hers. He argued that he painted often for Menon, a claim the artist dismisses. “He just cleaned the studio and did other sundry work,” she says. The painting, Female Head, passed several hands before it came to Menon for authentication in 2004. It was then that she discovered the racket, involving Hamid and her then framer, Suraj Sharma. The subsequent court trial still continues with the accused out on bail.
Even when artists manage to ring the alarm bells, perpetrators run free. “Copying an artwork is hardly considered an offence in court, punishment is more severe if one reports forgery of signature,” says Bachhawat. The ministry of culture, meanwhile, can barely intervene. “It can’t do much even if such a case is brought to its notice.
It is a criminal case and a police report needs to be filed,” says Jawhar Sircar, CEO of Prasar Bharati and former secretary in the ministry. Countries like France might destroy an artwork identified as fake but back home, these flourish and resurface. The solo show of Somnath Hore at Delhi’s Gallery Espace in 2007 still haunts his daughter Chandana. Sourced from his nephew Sugoto Majumdar, Chandana had identified almost all works in the exhibition as fakes, leading the gallery to withdraw the show within a week. But in recent years, the Kolkata-based artist has often been approached by independent dealers and collectors for authentication of individual works that comprised the show.
“Buyers needs to be informed and educated and use their discretion,” says Ina Puri, who authenticates works for Manjit Bawa. Her home in Gurgaon has numerous works of Bawa, which she refers to when explaining his style to those interested. Ashish Anand of Delhi Art Gallery recommends the formation of a regulatory authority to address concerns regarding the sale of fake artwork. “It should operate like SEBI or the Indian medical council, allowing the pursuit of fair business practices that monitor interests of the consumer within a framework that is just and fair,” he says. The proposal has been drafted, but the quantum of punishment for the offence will remain questionable. But then, Indian Beltracchis have not been identified either.
This story appeared in print with the headline Two Coats Of Paint