Questioning the authenticity of a work of art, precisely the ones put on auction, has dragged a number of senior journalists, big media houses, art critics and art historians to court, not only in India but also abroad. Looking at the Indian scenario, I can instantly cite two instances.
In June 2014, Bengaluru-based auction house Bid & Hammer filed criminal defamation cases against several individuals, including Calcutta-based artist and art historian Samindranath Majumdar, art restorer Ganesh Pratap Singh, Delhi-based art writer Johny M.L, Shailaja Tripathi and journalist Abhilasha Ojha, for their comments and articles published in several mainstream media houses, as well as those made on social media and digital platforms, questioning the authenticity of some of the works offered in an auction titled Significant Indian Art held in New Delhi in June 2014. They also dragged media houses such as The Hindu and The Indian Express for publishing the articles concerned.
In 2019, auction house Osian’s announced that they have filed a criminal complaint of defamation against Mumbai Mirror and journalists Meenal Baghel, Reema Gehi, artist Atul Dodiya and art critic Ranjit Hoskote, among others, for an article expressing doubts on the authenticity of some some pieces of art to be auctioned.
I happened to be one of the journalists following the developments around the 2014 auction titled Significant Indian Art and also published in the Hindustan Times’ Calcutta edition a piece questioning the authenticity of one of the works offered in the auction. As almost every other journalist who wrote about the auction questioning the authenticity of items got dragged to court, except me, one senior artist asked me, “How come you remain unscathed? Did you strike a deal with them?”
I informed him that no, I did not. It is most likely that the auctioneers would have had to answer more questions before the judges than I would have faced, had I been dragged to court.
This article is not to brag about my ‘success’. Those who had been dragged to court were of a greater experience, expertise and repute than me in the field of art. It is precisely because of an experience that I had in 2011 while chasing the truth around another alleged piece of fake art that I learned a crucial lesson. Thereafter, I changed my strategy.
This write-up is to share my experience with others working in the field for the development of a better understanding of the legal implications of questioning the authenticity of pieces of artwork.
The lesson, in brief, is: questioning the authenticity of a piece of art on the basis of stylistic analysis of the artist’s works by experts leaves a space for dispute. The auction houses also get those works authenticated by people, mostly critics and art historians of varying repute. Therefore, stylistic analysis does not provide a definitive answer, as experts can differ in their opinion. A scientific examination can have better accuracy in determining authenticity but that would also be quite expansive.
The experience with the ‘Tagore’ bird
The rather shameful and controversial exhibition of ‘paintings of Rabindranath Tagore’ held at the prestigious Government College of Art and Craft (GCAC) in Calcutta early in 2011 had triggered a heated debate on fake arts. Several critics, while examining the pieces on display, suspected the works to be fakes and subsequently a public interest litigation (PIL) was filed in the Calcutta high court, seeking an order to examine the authenticity of the works.
It was a first-of-a-kind case, a PIL on fake art, and it could happen possibly only because the organiser was a government-run institution.
The court instituted a committee involving Ratan Parimoo, one of the foremost authorities on Tagore’s paintings, and institutions such as National Museum Institute (New Delhi), National Research Laboratory for Conservation (Lucknow) and the Science Branch, Archeological Survey of India (Dehradun). Following scientific and stylistic analysis, the committee opined that 20 of the 23 works displayed at the exhibition were fakes.
A few months later, the Osian’s put on auction, among others, a piece of work by Tagore - a painting of a bird - that surprised several eminent Tagore experts in Calcutta. The auction was scheduled to be held in New Delhi on December 15, 2011. After one artist pointed out to me that a very similar work was in the collection of Visva Bharati University, I contacted two eminent experts on Rabindranath’s paintings - Raman Siva Kumar and Sushovan Adhikary, both of whom said that the work being offered in the auction was a fake, because Tagore never copied his own painting.
To be precise, Tagore was incapable of copying his own work, or the work of any other painter, because he was not a trained artist, and was rather an “intuitive one.”
I remember that the Parimoo-led committee’s report on Tagore fakes at GCAC, too, pointed out that the “skillfulness” of the artist who created the fakes stood in contrast to the intuitiveness of Tagore, a non-trained artist.
Siva Kumar had edited the book titled Rabindra Chitravali that consisted of over 2,000 Tagore paintings, drawings and etchings, the most elaborate work on Tagore paintings, published by the government of India. Adhikari had, for 25 long years between 1983 and 2008, served as the curator (custodian of conservation and exhibition of Tagore paintings) at Rabindra Bhavan, which has the biggest collections of Tagore paintings with as many as 1,580 works.
Siva Kumar had told me, “Rabindranath never repeated the same picture. In the more than 1,800 works I’ve seen, there are only three or four cases where he has returned to the same motif twice and, in each case, it’s a rework and not a copy.”
If their words do not carry weight, then whose it would?
But when I wrote to the Osian’s seeking their response, I was told Ratan Parimoo was among those who authenticated Rabindranath’s paintings offered in the auction.
Here came the questions that took me to a blind lane. When experts of their own repute differ, whose version is to be taken? And who is an expert in the first place? Besides, artists often make variations of their own work and they can also break away from their signature style.
My report on the controversy around the bird was carried in Hindustan Times’ Calcutta edition on December 9, giving adequate space to both sides of the arguments.
Nevertheless, I realised I would need evidence other than the stylistic approach to effectively investigate such allegations.
The New Strategy: Other Evidences
An opportunity came for the grab only too soon.
I had been inquiring about a few more of the lots offered by Osian’s. One of them was a watercolour by Radha Charan Bagchi. An art historian had informed me on the day the report on the Tagore bird was published that he, when a student of the GCAC, had seen Bagchi’s painting hanging in one of the rooms. It immediately dawned upon me that a painting in a government college must have to be a government property. But what if Bagchi copied his own work later?
For a better understanding, I took a copy of Osian’s catalogue (Creative India Series 1, Bengal, painting no 44, though erroneously written Radha Mohan Bagchi) to the residence of eminent painter Ganesh Haloi, who had been a student and also a teacher at the GCAC. Haloi, who was already in his 70s, had quite strangely remembered a crucial detail about Bagchi’s work. It was his work as a student and therefore the teacher had given him marks, 72 out of 100.
And that was the information to seal every debate. The painting in Osian’s catalogue also had the marks and the examiner’s signature. It had to be either stolen, or a copy. Haloi also showed me three past exhibition catalogues featuring this work, those were in black and white though.
To find out what happened to the work at GCAC, I went to the campus and the principal showed me the piece hanging on a wall in her room. On close examination, it became clear that the one in Osian’s catalogue was copied from one of those black and white reproductions in old catalogues, because the original had a few off-white flowers, which the black and white reproductions could not capture, and therefore went missing altogether from the one in Osian’s catalogue.
When I wrote to the Osian’s this time, asking if the one in their position was a fake or a stolen government property, they answered that they had already decided, on December 10, to withdraw the piece from auction as the gallery owner who supplied it failed to produce sufficient documents showing its provenance.
I contacted the art gallery. Its owner, Prakash Kejriwal, wrote to me on December 13, two days before the auction, saying that he decided to withdraw the piece from the auction after the person who supplied the work did not submit supporting documents despite repeated reminders.
Hemen Mazumdar’s non-existent phone numbers
When Bid & Hammer’s June 2014 auction became a talking point in the art world, not only because of the exquisite collection of art they offered but also because some of these works were being called as possible fakes, I did not write anything based on what experts were saying. I decided to gather other information related to those works.
One day, Samindranath Majumdar, a painter and art historian who also happened to be a nephew of Hemen Mazumdar, drew my attention to a ‘coloured-chalk-on-paper’ portrait of Abanindranath Tagore supposedly drawn by Hemendranath in 1941 on his own letterhead, which Abanindranath subsequently returned to him with an impression of his right palm, dated June 12, 1942. Therefore- a two-in-one set – Hemen’s portrait of Aban and Aban’s palm impression with a message of thanks.
The Bid & Hammer website described it as “a striking record of goodwill and admiration shared between two of the leading artists of Bengal, Abanindranath Tagore and Hemendranath Mazumdar.”
Samindranath gave me a crucial piece of information. The letterhead had a five-digit phone number of Mazumdar’s residence. But he informed me that Hemen did not have a phone at home at that time. He knew this from stories his father told him about visits to Hemen’s home.
“Even if my memory is betraying me, one way to verify the authenticity of the work would be to find out if the phone number is correct,” he advised.
I agreed. My search for a telephone directory of 1941 elicited no result. After spending hours at the Calcutta Telephones office and at the National Library for several days, I found government records – most importantly a book published by the Government of India for which PM Jawaharlal Nehru himself wrote the foreword. It was Krishnalal Sridharani’s ‘Story of the Indian Telegraph: A Century of Progress’. It clearly stated that five or six-digit numbers were introduced in Calcutta in 1953.
But the letterhead is dated July 14, 1941! How could he have a five-digit phone number 12 years in advance?
Furthermore, it now appeared that Bid & Hammer had produced a second letter as a provenance certificate for another work, an oil-on-canvas supposedly from Mazumdar’s famed ‘after bath’ series. This letter was addressed to sculptor Chandan Malakar, dated November 11, 1947. The letter apparently shows Mazumdar sold Malakar the work. Subsequently, its present owners acquired it from Malakar, the auction house claimed.
But this letterhead, too, contained a five-digit number: 43-673!
At the Calcutta Telephones office, I found examples of other phone numbers from the 1940s – Rabindranath Tagore, Ashutosh Mukherjee, Jagadish Chandra Bose, Chitta Ranjan Das and Bidhan Chandra Roy, among others -- and none of them had a five-digit phone number.
The bigger story was that the technology for direct dialing was not available at that time in the first place. Until 1953, one had to first dial the exchange, ask for the number to be connected, and wait till the operator got the line through. For example, numbers used to be like Burrabazar-1365 (BB-1365 in short) or Central-2256 or South-672. That was how Calcutta phone numbers used to be till 1953.
Hemen Mazumdar’s residence having a direct dial number in 1941 or 1947 was technologically and historically impossible.
If the phone numbers did not exist, the letterheads must have been fakes. And if the letterheads are fake, how can the artworks be genuine?
Bid and Hammer gave a strange reply to my email seeking their explanation: “Your questions in this email could easily be given a befitting reply but, to reiterate, your knowledge and intentions are questionable and hence does not merit a response.”
Due to the time the investigation took, my report was published on July 12, 2014. It was 15 days after the auction was conducted. Both the pieces are still available on Bid and Hammer website (click here to see the first and here for the second) and are described as “sold.”