Two months ago, a dealer referred a Manjit Bawa painting for sale to billionaire business leader and art aficionado Harsh Goenka, Chairman of RPG Enterprises. “It looked great, was the right size and had the right tonality but the price seemed too good to be true,” he says. When he delayed the purchase, the seller actually told Goenka that he could push the price further down for him, which is when Goenka ran the painting past two art experts who told him it was likely fake. Later again, he was shown an MF Husain work by a Mumbai dealer—the painting depicted themes from The Ramayana. A close perusal showed the arrows were pointing the wrong way. “Experts and research are the key to staying authentic,” Goenka says, adding that certain artists like S H Raza, who died in 2016, have seen a proliferation of fakes emerge. “In fact, Raza’s followers have themselves told me they would create some knock-offs for their mentor,” he notes.
Goenka is not the only tycoon to have been targeted by fraudulent art dealers.
“We were once offered a set of watercolours by a renowned painter,” says Ajay Piramal, Chairman of the Piramal Group, and a well-known art collector. “We were given a convincing provenance. It was gifted by the artist to a long-time friend of his and even had a handwritten letter behind one of the paintings.” However, when research on works from this series was done, it was found that the exact same painting existed as prints that were made many years ago and these were copies of those prints.”
Piramal says often the opacity around the art market is used to deceive buyers, even those who know their art well. “This is why the auction market is so strong now. There is relative transparency in provenance and price discovery,” he says.
Arvind Vijaymohan, chief executive officer of Artery India, an art asset advisory, says one part of why art forgery is on the rise is the quick returns. “Simply train a pair of hands in understanding how a said artist worked, and the returns can be exponential.” Last year, Vijaymohan says, he saw about 30 to 40 ‘Husains’ that were definitely not the works of the late master.
Six months ago, Vijamohan was asked to weigh in on a large oil on acrylic painting of a Manjit Bawa work with all the right bells and whistles and usual Bawa colour palette. “It featured a religious icon, the right colours, and it was a stunning image around 8 feet by 7 feet, and it belonged to someone who was moving into a swanky apartment in Gurgaon. But the composition was off because it had too many micro-themes which is not what Bawa ever did. The few ‘extras’ were a giveaway and were a slip,” Vijaymohan said. If such a painting had gone into an auction it would have been worth between ₹8 crore and ₹11 crore. Vijaymohan explained to the client through a report why that painting didn’t add up. His client didn’t end up buying it, but is not certain where the work eventually went, which is a bigger concern.
So, who are the most-faked artists?
Dinesh Vazirani who runs the auction house SaffronArt says, “It’s FN Souza, SH Raza, Jagdish Swaminathan, VS Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain. Also, there are many fakes of the Bengal school which is one reason why it (Bengal School) has not progressed.”
Vazirani adds that fakes of reputed Bengali master Jamini Roy’s works are all over the place. Industrialist and long-time art collector Vikram Thapar, Chairman KCT Group, agrees with him. “I refused to buy Jamini Roys because they are so heavily faked.” Thapar buys his art through a trust as an investment and relies on a team of in-house consultants. “It’s all about risk mitigation. The big collectors have seen the famous works on each other’s walls and are friends with most artists so that helps.”
One of the reasons for the upward spiral in fake art is attributed to the handsome price rise that art is commanding in the stock market boom of the last few years.
Last year, Christie’s, pointing specifically to India, said that there was a 31 percent increase in the number of buyers from India as compared to 2020 and Indian sales numbers went up by around 25 percent in 2020 and 15 percent in 2019. Examples of record-breaking works include Tyeb Mehta’s Untitled (Bull on Rickshaw) which sold for ₹41.97 crore, the highest value ever for the artist in auctions, and Raja Ravi Varma’s Draupadi Vastraharan for ₹21.6 crore. Both were record prices.
Dadiba Pundole, owner of Pundole Art Gallery, says, “We keep getting emails sending us examples of works they want to sell and it’s almost always the ones that do well at the auctions,” he says, adding that “there are tons of fakes and forgeries floating around and the truth is that anyone can get tricked, even the big houses and not just the small players.”
Is the law not stringent enough to deter forgeries?
Lawyer Roshnek Dhalla who runs a recently-launched Art Law practice at Khaitan & Co, a full-service law firm, says the jurisprudence in this field is limited because of the inherent lack of awareness about provenance in the Indian art markets. “The cases so far are more in the nature of court directives instead of clear verdicts,” she says. “One of the primary causes driving the rising instances of art forgery is the lack of transparency and awareness.”
The Indian art market is not effectively regulated, and lacking in clear laws, regulations and the presence of an established Art Registry. “The absence of a well-regulated framework has created a grey area in which a fake art market is presently functioning,” she says. “Also, art collectors and artists are not completely aware of the legal remedies they can resort to to protect their collection.”
But there are safeguards one can deploy. “When we started collecting, we insisted on only seeing artworks that were either published or had a strong ownership history. Since art is very subjective, one needs to build a lot of documentation such as provenance of the work, publication and exhibition history, sale deeds and purchase contracts. Usually, sellers of fake artworks will not agree to these legally binding documents,” says Ajay Piramal.
Senior artist Paresh Maity says that a gallery recently sent him an image of a watercolour that was being offered to them and asked if it was indeed his. “I immediately said no because the paper I used was absolutely different. Its grain and quality were something I could tell from the photo itself. I use only a certain colour of paper and the strokes I do on watercolour have a certain style. It was a small landscape and may have had a resemblance to an early work of mine,” he says. Maity says he has now started using a complex hologram on his works which won’t be visible to the casual eye but will serve as an inbuilt provenance.
At the buyer-level one safeguard is to buy from an established gallery or auction house where there is some recourse. “When you buy from a small dealer, getting your money back is tough. Also, avoid using cash and buy legitimately so there’s a trail so keep the money trail legitimate,” says Vazirani. “And watch out for deals on big names. If, it seems too good to be true, then it’s not authentic.”