Fakes trouble India's booming art market

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The Independent Culture

Over the next few days, India's biggest art show will witness a frenzy of buying, but before opening their wallets, collectors should be aware of Arpana Caur's cautionary tale.

During a recent visit to a gallery in New Delhi, the 57-year-old artist identified two paintings that were copied from her "Nanak" series that depicts the life of the founder of the Sikh religion.

She says her investigation revealed that her former apprentice and framer were running a racket employing art students to copy her works and then sell them to new galleries.

"I filed a police complaint against them, seized the forged paintings as proof, but they were never arrested," said Caur, whose work fetches up to two million rupees ($44,000) at international shows and auctions.

"It's not just the paintings that were copied. My signature and certificate of authentication were being forged too," she added. "The problem of fake art is not new in the global art world, but in India this cancer has spread beyond your imagination."

Caur is not alone in her worry. The country's most celebrated artists M.F. Husain, S.H. Raza and Satish Gujral have also been victims of sophisticated counterfeiters.

A total of 500 artists will be on show at the third India Art Summit, which opens in a sprawling exhibition hall in the Indian capital on Thursday.

In 2009, the last time the exhibition was staged, a total of $5.3 million worth of paintings, sculpture and multi-media work was snapped up by investors and collectors, according to organisers.

They say the show only includes the best galleries who are adept at sniffing out the fake from the bona fide, but they concede that the counterfeit market is a problem.

"We do not verify the works that are displayed. It is the job of the art gallery owners and the buyers. Our job is to provide a platform," said director Neha Kirpal.

Jatin Gandhi, an art historian based in Mumbai, says the hunger of art collectors to buy a piece of contemporary India has attracted shady operators.

He estimates that more than 1,000 suspect galleries, often run by people who previously sold Indian handicrafts, have sprung up in the past five years, particularly in cities such as Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore and Hyderabad.

"The new galleries are desperate to have works from established artists. They have no understanding and are happy to throw black money at fakes," he said.

"The fakes are sold at premium prices and they frequently exchange hands until they are detected."

Prices in the Indian market are said by experts to be back on their steep upward trajectory after a blip caused by the global financial crisis but no reliable figures are available.

The year 2010 saw some record prices, notably for a work by S.H. Raza. His "Saurashtra" painting fetched $3.5 million at Christie's in London.

Romano Ravasio and his Italy-based company Art Consulting offer advice to art collectors and he says he avoids the secondary market in India, where art is resold by dealers and collectors.

"My golden rule is to buy from a reputed gallery or directly from the artist," he said.

Industry experts say India needs a specialised police team to probe art crime, but with the force often lacking basic crime-fighting training and equipment, this seems unlikely in the short-term.

In the meantime "fake factories", often using art students, are expected to continue churning out copies that are a hazard for anyone thinking of putting money into the market.

Even highly experienced connoisseurs have fallen prey to the criminals.

The owners of the Dhoomimal Gallery in New Delhi, who have been in the business of exhibiting and selling original works for more than seven decades, say they have been victims.

"We had to pull out an entire series in 2009 as they were all fakes," says Uma Jain, owner of the gallery, who had to discard 12 paintings purportedly by S.H. Raza after the artist identified them as forgeries.

Raza later confirmed the fakes were sold to the gallery by his nephew, who claimed they were originals left in a family home.

In 2006, international auction houses Christie's and Sotheby's had to withdraw a total of 14 works from Indian artists F.N Souza, M.F Husain, Jamini Roy and Ganesh Pyne due to doubts about their authenticity.

Jain says that primary responsibility for detecting fakes rests with the gallery, but the artists should also compile catalogues of their work and collectors should consult experts before parting with money.

"All these incidents should ring a bell in the government's ear," she said. "It's time to clean up."