Obituary: Toby Falk

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The Independent Online
Toby Falk's work, first at Sotheby's and later as an independent consultant, put the study of Oriental art, and Indian pictures in particular, on a new plane, a lasting monument to his eye and learning alike. His wonderful eye for miniatures and paintings was allied to a natural gift for imaginative research and accurate description.

He was born in 1942, the son of a country doctor. He went to Rugby and King's College, Cambridge, where he read Natural Sciences. While still an undergraduate he used to frequent picture galleries and antique shops, and visits to London made him familiar with its museums as well. His range went far beyond the cluster of auction rooms and shops round Sotheby's and Christie's. One day, Andras Kalman, who dealt in contemporary art too, was descanting on the maturity and taste of the young man who visited him to another customer: "He could be a painter, you know," he said. "You are talking about my son," said Dr Falk.

It was natural for him to join this world when he came down, and in 1964 he became a porter at Sotheby's. From there he moved to the book department, to catalogue Oriental manuscripts and miniatures. The 1960s were a rich period. Collections like those of Chester Beatty and Sir Thomas Phillipps were being dispersed, and, in particular, that of the Armenian collector Hagop Kevorkian, whose successive sales vastly extended the volume of what was known then about Oriental book art.

It was also a good time to work at Sotheby's. The book department under Anthony Hobson and Lord John Kerr, with Andreas Mayor as well, was a byword for scholarly cataloguing, although there was no resident Orientalist. But help was available from outside: Philip Pouncey came from the British Museum to strengthen the old master drawing department; in Oriental art W.G. Archer, who had moved from the Indian Civil Service to the Victoria and Albert Museum, was available, as were B.W. Robinson and Robert Skelton.

All these became Falk's mentors. He proved an apt pupil: besides his natural eye he was quick to pick up a wide range of Oriental languages and scripts, and soon there were few texts, no matter how obscure or difficult, that could elude him. The catalogues that he produced became famous for learning and the skill with which he could communicate the desirable qualities of what he described. This too came easily to him, because he was himself a collector. I used occasionally to see him in the Portobello Road (we shared an interest in old glass), where he picked up the china and pottery jugs of all kinds and periods that particularly delighted him - his taste was too catholic to become boringly specialist.

But the learning he now built up was too great to be constricted to the material that came to the market, rich though it was. Falk had built up a special interest in the vivid and powerful painting of the Qajar school north of the Gulf in the late 18th and early 19th century, and had been instrumental in the sale of the collection of Qajar portraits made by Julian Amery to the wife of the Shah of Persia. From this grew Qajar Paintings, his first major publication, which came out in 1972.

In 1974 he left Sotheby's employ, while remaining a frequent consultant, crossing the threshold in St George Street at least twice a week for the rest of his life. What drew him was the chance to work with Mildred Archer on the catalogue of the vast collection of miniatures in the India Office Library. It was the happiest of collaborations: a common aptitude of eye and precise scholarship made it easy for them to work together. Often it turned into a sort of ad hoc seminar, in which staff and other readers joined.

Indian Miniatures in the India Office Library came out in 1981, and the full wealth of the Richard Johnson and Hamilton collections could be fully appreciated for the first time. This led to a further collaboration with Archer in India Revealed (1989), based on the collections and papers of two Scots, James and William Fraser, who went to India at the beginning of the 19th century. They were extensive patrons of the local artists who produced the views and genre scenes known as "Company School" pictures, which present such a vivid picture of every aspect of Indian life in the beginning of British rule in India. Here again Falk anticipated a taste for these materials, which have now become so popular.

Besides his work at the India Office, he also worked on many other projects, notably the catalogue of Persian and Mughal miniatures and drawings exhibited by Colnaghi's for the Festival of Islam in 1976. For Colnaghi's too he produced the exhibition that led to Birds in an Indian Garden (1984), written with his wife, which drew on their common knowledge and love of natural history as well as his special experience of Oriental paintings of flowers and birds.

It is not easy to bridge the gap that divides the market, and the interaction of taste and money that it represents, and the academic world of abstract scholarship. Toby Falk did so with complete assurance, all the greater because he was so unconscious of the gap and modest about his own great abilities. He was consulted by curators, collectors and his former colleagues in the trade, who had absolute faith, always justified, in his integrity and discretion.

It is hard to believe that all this has gone so suddenly (he died of a very rapid cancer), and sad to think that his handsome form, his face serious but illuminated by a most engaging smile, will be seen no more.

Stephen John ("Toby") Falk, historian of Oriental art: born 6 July 1942; married 1984 Gael Hayter (one daughter); died 10 January 1997.

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