With his head tilted, eyes tranquil and a string of rosary in hand, Guru Nanak is serenity himself. The black backdrop has the neatly outlined figure seated, with his foot stylistically bent and a blue shadow below. “I painted this Nanak two years ago. It now belongs to a collector in Singapore,” says Arpana Caur of the painting that has come to her studio for a touch-up.
Not more than two feet away is another image, seemingly identical. On closer inspection, the differences begin to surface. Nanak’s face is narrow and stern, the eyes have a blue tinge and all the beads are of the same size. The artist’s signature is under Nanak’s foot and dated 2006. It’s clearly not a Caur.
The fake was brought to Caur for authentication by a Delhi-based gallery owner last month. A week prior to this, another independent collector had brought to her notice a fake oil-on-canvas, Nanak and Mardana, painted by Caur in 2004. “I was shocked to see two fakes surface within a week,” she says. Though she has managed to trace the dealer to Delhi, she is not sure about approaching the court. “The dealer claims that the fakes’ current owners have framed him by taking his signature on a blank paper and forging a receipt. I can file a case, but my bad health does not permit me to run around,” says Caur.
In Santiniketan, Somnath Hore’s wife Reba and daughter Chandana are facing a similar dilemma. Last month, Delhi’s Gallery Espace announced an exhibition Agony and Ecstasy, comprising 22 bronze sculptures by Somnath that had never been displayed. Renu Modi’s gallery claimed that these were sourced from Sugato Majumdar, a distant relative of Somnath. However, Chandana and Reba declared that all works were fakes. “The catalogue was enough to tell that none of them were original. Majumdar said that the art works were in his attic. My father made a handful of bronze sculptures and documented each of them. The records would mention any works given to Sugato.”
While the gallery refuted all allegations, Chandana succeeded in having the show withdrawn a week before it was supposed to end. Now she is considering sending a legal notice to the gallery, but “I’m wary of the long duration that cases usually take,” she rues.
The apprehension is justified. In 2004, Anjolie Ela Menon filed a case against her assistant Hameed Safi and photo-framer Suraj Sharma for producing and selling three of her fakes—Blue Lady, Brahmin Boy and Oval Lady. “I pursued the case for two years, but the duo was granted bail after three months of imprisonment. Eventually, I gave up,” she says. Since then Menon has been authenticating all her works and puts a thumb impression behind every canvas.
Skyrocketing art prices, lack of formal documentation and absence of a standard procedure to track the sale of art works places the forgers at a distinct advantage. So for years, works of the late artists like Jamini Roy, F.N. Souza, Raja Ravi Verma and Amrita Sher-Gil have been churned out endlessly. The difference, says Caur, is that there is a rise in the number of fakes of artists who are alive as the “forgers know the loopholes in the system”.
Distinguishing an original from a fake is often difficult as the disparities are subtle. In some cases, the medium differs, in others, the placement of objects is altered or the signature is missing. Mostly, the difference is in details. Which is why even M.F. Husain failed to recognise three of his fakes at an exhibition in Mumbai in 2002.
There may be no guidelines to ensure that a buyer is not duped into buying a fake, but precautions can help. Says Sunaina Anand from Art Alive Gallery, Delhi: “The purchase should always be made from a reputed gallery or a renowned establishment. In case of a dead artist, we seek provenance through a close family member.”
Sunit Kumar Jain, director of Delhi’s Kumar Gallery, insists on an invoice with details like the title, price, name of the company from which it is purchased, address of its registered office and bill number. “This is a binding document and can be produced in court,” he says.
“The government should legalise art dealing and a licence should be granted for conducting business in art,” suggests artist Satish Gujral. “An Art Dealers Association could be set up to issue certificates to legitimate members for business. Any violation should result in cancellation of membership,” he adds. Caur, on the other hand, feels that the law should be more stringent and suggests setting up of a tribunal specialising in forgery cases.
Till then, there’s no stopping the forgers from painting the town red with fakes.
How to avoid being duped
Insist on an invoice and an authentication certificate when buying an art work.
Always deal with a reputed gallery or an auction house.
If the work belongs to a living artist, they should be approached for authentication.
The immediate family should be contacted for verification if the artist is deceased.