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Explained: Chandigarh’s heritage furniture, and how it reaches international auctions

According to an inventory made in 2012, Chandigarh has 12,793 heritage items of around 131 kinds. There are reports that there are several items which are left without identification.

Written by Saurabh Parashar , Edited by Explained Desk | Chandigarh | November 25, 2020 2:40:00 pm
Chandigarh, Chandigarh news, Chandigarh heritage furniture, Le Corbusier, Le Corbusier furniture, Chandigarh furniture auction, Indian ExpressThis 2016 photo shows recovered Heritage Furniture by the police. (Express Photo: Jaipal Singh)

Since the 1990s, furniture designed by Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret for various government offices, Panjab University, the Assembly as well as the Punjab and Haryana High Court have been finding their way to foreign lands to be auctioned in millions. The recent theft of 48 chairs designed by the duo from PU once again highlights the nexus between smugglers and locals to procure these pieces by fraudulent means.

These chairs were given special status by the Ministry of Home Affairs in 2011 while expanding the ‘Terms of Reference’ of an expert committee constituted to look into the concept of Chandigarh. Le Corbusier was hired for designing Chandigarh, the capital of Punjab and Haryana, in 1950 by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru.

Why was there a demand to label Chandigarh chairs, other furniture as ‘heritage’?

The demand for declaring all the items originally designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret arose following reports of their auction in the West. Between 1999 and 2001, the Chandigarh administration sold damaged furniture items at PU as scrap to French nationals. At that time, the PU and local administration were not aware about the importance of the furniture in the international market. Once the auctions started taking place and the chairs started finding pride of place in the homes of celebrities like the Kardashians, city-based activists, administration officials and even a section of government machinery began to stress on the need to declare these items as ‘heritage’. But the demand was rejected by the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) that said these chairs did not fall in the purview of the Art Treasures and Antiquities Act, 1972. Later, ASI referred to certain clauses of the Act under which local administration could preserve these items.

The heritage title to these items has been a matter of debate for a long time but the MHA agreed to give these items special status and instructed an expert committee headed by UT Administrator to make their detailed inventory in 2011. The MHA directed the Chandigarh administration to suspend transportation of all these furniture along with other objects originally designed by Corbusier and Jeanneret from Chandigarh and to find out how these items had reached foreign lands. MHA also expanded the ‘Terms of Reference’ of the Expert Committee to put this furniture under its purview along with buildings such as the Capitol Complex, Punjab and Haryana High Court, Secretariat, etc.

What are the other heritage items in Chandigarh?

Besides the wooden furniture, heritage items including more than 1200 iron manhole covers depicting the initial map of Chandigarh, low-height concrete tube fixers installed at Sukhna Lake, Rock Garden, window iron angles installed at PU, original drawings, murals, models made by the two architects are among the items preserved by the UT administration. According to an inventory made in 2012, Chandigarh has 12,793 heritage items of around 131 kinds. During the process of making the inventory, every heritage item was given a specific number. There are reports that there are several items, which were left without identification. 📣 Express Explained is now on Telegram

Chandigarh, Chandigarh news, Chandigarh heritage furniture, Le Corbusier, Le Corbusier furniture, Chandigarh furniture auction, Indian Express Swiss architect Le Corbusier. (Express Archive)

How were these items smuggled out of Chandigarh and then India?

There were at least five occasions when five French nationals managed to take out hundreds of furniture items, which were broken and lying unutilised, legally after purchasing these from Panjab University from 1999 to 2001. Later on, a Banta’s imposed on the sale of these items. Police investigation suggests foreign antique dealers contact their counterparts in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi. People in these cities hire small time thieves, burglars for executing the thefts of items from locked/secured storerooms. DRI investigation established that smugglers transport these items through sea routes and with fake authenticity certificates from the Archeological Survey of India (ASI) making it legally hassle-free to transport these out of the country.

What is the role of the central agencies and Chandigarh police?

It was in August 2016 when the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence arrested an antique and artefacts smuggler Vijay Nanda in Mumbai for smuggling pieces designed by Le Corbusier/Pierre Jeanneret to foreign lands. DRI had also established the link of a Punjab Civil Service (PCS) officer, who was questioned by DRI, which had recommended a strict note against the former to the Punjab government. DRI investigation had established that he reportedly provided heritage furniture items to Nanda through one Devesh Goel. So far, Chandigarh police has arrested almost 15 local thieves including two women in connection with six reported cases of theft. They have, however, but failed to trace any Mumbai links.

What is the value of these furniture in the international market?

According to the members of the UT Heritage Protection Committee, auction houses in foreign lands have been earning millions through the auction of these items. A committee member, Advocate Ajay Jagga, said: “Countless auctions have taken place and the next one is scheduled for December 2 in Milan. On October 14 this year, 10 heritage items were auctioned in the UK for € 2,21,260 (Rs 2.11 crore) against the reserve price of Rs 1.50 crore. The online auction took place at UK-based auction house Bonhams.”

Though the UT administration has taken up the matter with French and British Embassies to put a stop to the auction of items, auction houses continue to put these items under the hammer.

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