Kolkata: The Victoria Memorial Hall, a repository of pre-independence art, has acquired at least three Rabindranath Tagore paintings of questionable provenance, according to an inquiry by the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) of West Bengal Police.
Though the last of these was bought by the museum—a Kolkata icon—at least five years ago, none of the Tagore paintings has been displayed for public viewing yet.
The paintings, bought in fiscal years 2004-05 and 2006-07, are the only Tagore paintings the Victoria Memorial has, according to Swapan Chakravorty, its curator.
Chakravorty, who also serves as director general of the National Library, took over this additional responsibility in February.
Asked why the Victoria Memorial had never displayed the Tagore paintings till now, Chakravorty said that in any museum, whatever is on display at any point in time is “only the tip of the iceberg”. “Malfeasance, if any, (in the acquisition of art by Victoria Memorial) can only be determined only through an investigation,” he added.
The case illustrates the reputation risk carried by institutions such as the Victoria Memorial in acquiring art that may be of questionable merit, exposing them to discredit in the eyes of ordinary art lovers as well as connoisseurs, according to Jayanta Chaudhuri, officer-in-charge at the Government College of Art and Craft in Kolkata, which faced a similar situation last year.
To be sure, the CID isn’t immediately probing the Victoria Memorial’s acquisition of art.
The state government recently launched an inquiry by it into an exhibition of Tagore’s paintings held last year at the Government College of Art and Craft. Of the 23 paintings displayed at the exhibition, 20 were eventually declared fake by the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI).
The probe, however, has disclosed that the Victoria Memorial, which had a committee of experts to select works of art for acquisition, has bought several paintings—not only works of Tagore—of dubious provenance, said CID officers, asking not to be named.
These include works of Ramkinkar Baij, a noted sculptor and painter from Santiniketan where the Tagore-founded Visva-Bharati University is based), painters Nandalal Bose and Hemen Majumdar—all masters of the so-called Bengal school of art. These were bought over at least four-five years till 2007.
“It is essential that we have a government-formulated policy for acquisition of art by museums,” Chakravorty said, adding that the Victoria Memorial was forced to stop buying paintings and other works of art in 2007 for want of such a policy.
Chittaranjan Panda, who was the curator of the Victoria Memorial at the time of these controversial art acquisitions, was not available for comment. He did not return calls or answer text messages sent to his mobile phone over the past three days.
At least one of the three Tagore paintings bought by the Victoria Memorial can be traced to the private collection of a person identified as Jayanta Kumar Banerjee of Dhanbad, from which all the fakes displayed at the government art college exhibition had come.
The seller to the Victoria Memorial, though, was different.
Banerjee, according to CID statements in court last week, is a fugitive in a case lodged against government art college officials for last year’s exhibition. He could not be contacted for comment.
A documentation department official at the Victoria Memorial said in the presence of Chakravorty that the museum had bought two Tagore paintings from Sudip Ghosal, a Kolkata-based art dealer, and one from Alakananda Saha, a collector who runs Delhi-based Montage Art Gallery.
Saha, 73, confirmed that she had sold one Tagore painting to the Victoria Memorial, but refused to disclose its provenance. It was a “slightly retouched restored painting” according to her.
Dispute and discredit
Citing a video recording, a copy of which is in Mint’s possession, CID officials say the painting sold by Saha had come from Banerjee’s now-disputed collection.
The video shows Banerjee as claiming in an interview to students of Kolkata’s government art college that a painting from his collection had been bought by the Victoria Memorial.
The interview was surreptitiously recorded by two students in the wake of the controversy over last year’s exhibition. It appears from their questions that they were trying to dredge out the provenance of the paintings that Banerjee had supplied to the art college for the now-discredited exhibition.
Banerjee claims in the interview that he received them from the late Nirmal Kumari Mahalanobis, wife of Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis—the founder of the Indian Statistical Institute. The couple was among Tagore’s close associates.
Delhi-based art collector Saha admitted to having had a long association with Banerjee and his family, but refused to make any further comment on this subject, saying she did not want to “get dragged into controversy”.
One painting from Banerjee’s collection was bought five years ago by Jogen Chowdhury, a celebrated painter, former professor of art at Visva-Bharati University and curator of the art gallery at the Rashtrapati Bhawan. Banerjee speaks about the sale in the interview.
The two didn’t meet, though. The transaction took place through an intermediary —Dipali Bhattacharya, a former principal of Kolkata’s Government College of Art and Craft—who said Chowdhury paid Rs.6 lakh in three instalments through her.
This painting was one of those displayed at last year’s controversial exhibition at the government art college—even this was declared fake by ASI.
Painter Chowdhury was on the panel of the Victoria Memorial, which decided on its art acquisitions. He refused to comment on the unfolding controversy, saying he had been advised by his lawyers not to discuss this matter with anyone except law enforcement agencies.
Ghosal, the other art dealer who sold two Tagore paintings to the Victoria Memorial, was recently forced to withdraw from an online auction more than a dozen paintings of Bengal masters because potential buyers challenged their authenticity.
These included purported works of Abanindranath Tagore, Gaganendranath Tagore (both nephews of Rabindranath Tagore) and Nandalal Bose, among others.
Ghosal, 65, said he had sold to the Victoria Memorial 10-15 paintings over four-five years till it stopped buying works of art in 2007. These included two paintings by Rabindranath Tagore—one of a “blue bird” and the other of “two human faces”—but he denied that those he was forced to withdraw from the recent online auction were fakes.
He, however, admitted that the Victoria Memorial had withheld two paintings and a sculpture offered by him for sale for three years from 2007 “to obtain opinions (on them) from external experts”.
From dealing in art to real estate
They were eventually returned because the museum was not convinced about their authenticity. Among them were two works of Ramkinkar Baij, according to Ghosal.
Several gallery owners and collectors in Kolkata said Ghosal had at times sold unquestionable paintings, mostly of Abanindranath Tagore. But Ghosal said he had lately turned to brokering land and real estate deals because he was finding it difficult to sell paintings from his “huge collection of Bengal masters”.
“There are no buyers these days of the kind of paintings I have in my collection,” he said. “I have never had much interest in contemporary (or living) artists.”
Ghosal, according to people familiar with him, managed to cut his teeth as an art dealer because of his relation with Abanindranath Tagore’s grandson Badshah, who married his elder sister, the late Shyamashree.
She, too, has sold several Abanindranath Tagore paintings to the Victoria Memorial from her family’s collection.
Strangely, Ghosal has never sold any work of Abanindranath Tagore to the Victoria Memorial. Though he has sold several paintings of the artist, collected mostly from descendants of the Tagore family, they were all taken by private collectors, according to him.
Contrary to established convention, the Victoria Memorial would never ask sellers to produce a provenance certificate or a statement from an expert attesting to the authenticity. Its own panel for art acquisition, which always included an eminent painter, would decide on what to buy unaided by any certificate from outside.
Ghosal said the experts on the panel would discuss provenance with sellers, but would never ask for written statements. Montage Art Gallery’s Saha said she couldn’t immediately recall whether she had given anything in writing in support of the Rabindranath Tagore painting she had sold to the Victoria Memorial.
Auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s probe the provenance so intensely that most Indian art dealers find them “too demanding”, according to Rajat Kanta Ray, a former vice-chancellor of Visva-Bharati University and an expert on Rabindranath Tagore. Institutions in India, too, should follow the same practice, he added, whereas here people pay more attention to “stylistic similarity” than provenance.
At the heart of this raging controversy is last year’s exhibition at Kolkata’s Government College of Art and Craft.
Coming close on the heels of the record-breaking June 2010 auction at Sotheby’s in which 12 paintings of Rabindranath Tagore from the Dartington Hall Trust, a charity, sold for £1.5 million ($2.2 million at that time), it drew a lot of attention.
The exhibition was to have 23 paintings by the poet, of which at least 20 were never seen before. The Indian Museum had given three—only these were found to be original works of Rabindranath Tagore.
After ASI declared the 20 paintings, including the one given for display by painter Chowdhury, as fakes, he told close associates that he had been fooled into buying it. Banerjee, who until a year ago had rubbished allegations of forgery, filed a petition with a district court in Dhanbad, saying the paintings did not belong to him.
Banerjee having disowned them, there is no claimant for 19 of the 23 paintings that were exhibited last year. The disputed paintings are currently in the custody of the Indian Museum, where ASI examined them for authenticity.