Fraudulence framed: What’s with this picture?
Fugitive diamond trader Nirav Modi’s fake Souza paintings highlight the widespread extent of forgery in the Indian art market
Panaji: Just one look. In retrospect, that’s all it would have taken. One single critical glance from an informed eye, to realize everything was dreadfully wrong about the story Nirav Modi was peddling about himself. Long before the fugitive diamond trader disappeared overseas earlier this year, followed by a string of shocking accusations about defrauding Punjab National Bank of two billion dollars, his public relations team spent considerable energy trying to position the diminutive diamond dealer as an enlightened connoisseur of the finest things in life. Almost exactly a year ago, he flew in (along with Conde Nast Traveller India) “the best chef in the world” Massimo Bottura, of the celebrated Michelin three-star ‘Osteria Francescana’ in Modena, Italy, for an exclusive dinner in Mumbai.
By that time, all the standard PR photos of the waifish conman pictured him beaming against the splashy backdrop of his supposedly fabulous art collection. Of the single most famous image, critic and curator Ranjit Hoskote says, “he smiles at the camera in a manner that suggests he is posing deliberately, and making the photographer—and viewer—complicit in a piece of theatre.” In fact, the game was given away in an instant, because here is vivid graphic evidence of brazen fraud being perpetrated right in the open. It’s not Modi himself, but the two paintings conspicuously placed to flank their owner at his elbows, ostensibly “signed” by the late, great, pioneering modernist artist Francis Newton Souza.
There has been a cascade of criminal charges and an Interpol “red corner notice” against Modi. Modi’s own tightly-knit community of Palanpuri Jain diamond traders suspected something was awry, but they assumed the long game would be successful, because he was achieving breakthroughs no one else had ever managed before. In 2010, he was the first Indian jeweller featured on the cover of Christie’s auction catalogue (the 99-carat Golconda Lotus necklace eventually sold for $3.56 million). His glamorous boutiques flourished on Old Bond Street in London and Madison Avenue in New York. This year itself, he was photographed smiling widely with Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Davos in January.
All the while, Modi was gabbling art non-stop, calculatedly placing big name artists and their artworks right up front in his carefully constructed story of simple-living millionaire boy turned ultra-cosmopolitan billionaire. Last year, he told Architectural Digest—in a typically glowing feature packed with art pseudo-jargon and led by that same photo studded with forgeries—his first major creative epiphany came in front of Monet’s wildly popular ‘Water Lilies’ series at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, saying “Art has impacted my work directly and indirectly, and often provides a thought or a mood, which leads to a piece or a collection”.
Then, as per usual, and for the umpteenth time, the now-disgraced diamantaire cited Souza as his special favourite, whose ostensible 1974-dated painting ‘Metropolis’ he owned, and had inspired an exclusive line of necklaces and earrings. The painting in question is pictured quite small, and difficult to assess conclusively. But there’s no doubt it is dubious, yet another fake.
Francis Newton Souza died in 2002 on a visit to Bombay from his home in New York, just as the market value of modern and contemporary Indian art had begun to explode. In his lifetime of exuberant highs mixed in with plentiful hard knocks, the 78-year-old never sold a painting for even $10,000, and his passing went largely unremarked. At that time, the poet and critic Adil Jussawalla wrote with great anger about “the near-indifference to his death, the mealy-mouthed praise” saying, “I’m shocked…Surely there’s little doubt he was one of our greatest painters.”
In fact, India’s burgeoning art marketplace did respond immediately afterwards, with ghoulish alacrity. Less than twelve months passed after his burial in Sewri cemetery before the top price for Souza’s paintings crested $100,000, then in fairly short order surged well past a million dollars. In 2015, his monumental ‘Birth’ sold for just over $4 million, setting the record for the most expensive Indian painting ever sold (that benchmark has since been broken by his Goan countryman, friend and colleague Vasudeo Gaitonde).
Before he died, a good part of Souza’s last years were consumed by rage and frustration because he detected that his work was being widely forged with impunity. On 20June 1997, he wrote an incendiary open letter to Geeta Mehra, the director of Sakshi Art Gallery on Altamount Road in Mumbai, complaining “there are numerous fakes in the art market, not only in India but in Europe. Mr. Julian Hartnoll, of the Hartnoll Gallery, showed me several fakes and forgeries of my work being sold in London…since Indian art has found a fairly stable art market, many unscrupulous persons are dealing in fakes!”
He was astounded at the mendacity. “And mark this—a breed of “art experts” has come out of the woodwork! They give “certificates” for a fee, stating the fakes are genuine!” Souza wrote, naming prominent dealers (many still active today) who were “utterly unreliable in their dealings in art. They are greedy upstarts—that have jumped on the art bandwagon to make a fast buck! They employ forgers to produce the “artworks” they sell.” Later that year on 27 October 1997, Souza went into more detail in his widely circulated letter to Meher Pestonji at Art India Magazine, about “a widespread racket taking place in art forgeries.” He wrote, “your investigative reporting is much needed to blow the lid off this cooked-up “art” done by crafty forgers and sold by even craftier dealers! And even weirder the fact that there are people who will knowingly buy the fakes, because they are cheaper than the originals, and put them up on their walls. And the ‘cocktail’ guests are impressed by the “art collection” of the works of “famous modern Indian painters”! Status symbols indeed! How will the gullible guests guess that the “paintings” are all fakes put up there by their nouveau riche hosts in order to boast about their art acquisition? And such persons who actually buy cheap fakes are against exposing the dealers who sell them. Get it? Art is a world of beauty and a lot of garbage goes with it. The garbage has to be carted-off and dumped. Or else it is going to stink!”
Fraudulence in Indian art
Fast forward to 2018, and it’s hard to detect much beauty in the suffocating volume of garbage that has piled up in the intervening years. The reek of fraudulence unmistakably suffuses throughout the Indian marketplace, which still features the toxic combination that upset Souza in the 1990s—compromised “experts”, shady dealers, and rafts of hopelessly naïve buyers who find themselves manipulated into buying fakes.
Dadiba Pundole has seen it all over the years, since his father opened the iconic Pundole’s Art Gallery in Mumbai’s Flora Fountain in 1963. He says “I am not surprised at all. It’s just plain greed at work. We have no reliable authentication process. There are lots of people in power— professors, critics, museum directors— who issue “certificates of authenticity.” On what basis? There is enough money at stake to provide more than adequate reward for malpractice. And in this area, the police are not competent to intervene, and there are no legal judgements to show a way forward. It’s become an organized racket. I am definitely concerned. Earlier, a genuine work would announce itself. But now, the quality of faking has improved hugely.”
Hoskote recounts his own recent experience, “When Jehangir Sabavala passed away in September 2011, he left behind an amazing legacy of art that had been remarkably well documented across the more than six decades of his practice. He had also, always, been very much his own person, and was never affiliated to any grouping. And his complex techniques were impossible to clone. I never thought I would see a Sabavala fake. However, within years, I began to be approached by people who were perplexed by works they were being shown by dealers and other intermediaries – palpable, laughable fakes. I am exasperated by these clumsy attempts, which often meld elements from two or more Sabavala paintings and produce a Frankenstein composite.”
He goes on to say, “In one case, the very same painting—supposedly by the hand of the master, and rather audaciously essaying an ensemble with a great many figures —has come to me from three sources, with three different stories about provenance…Imagine how the market in fakes would operate with less meticulous, less systematic, less documented masters!”
The way forward
Arguably no Indian artist was ever quite as prolific as Francis Newton Souza. He was like a volcano of creative genius, in perpetual eruption and producing artworks like non-stop lava flow throughout the 20th century. His personal demons and wildly rocky private life weren’t helpful in terms of keeping records. But it is the perennially weak and indifferent Indian art marketplace that meant the vast majority of his oeuvre was purchased directly from the artist, who maintained seemingly inexhaustible supplies of finished canvases, boards, works on paper and ‘chemical’ alterations on magazine pages in his homes, successively, in Paris, London, and New York.
Anyone who walked in during those years stumbled into an Aladdin’s Den of treasures stacked in every corner, teetering on every piece of furniture, and occupying all available wall-space, and then walk right out again with genuine masterpieces acquired for a few hundred dollars. Nirav Modi’s ultra-rich ilk of instant “art lovers” could have acquired the entire trove for the price of their first luxury automobiles. But no one ever did, which means this magnificent oeuvre is scattered all over the world, and no one knows what was produced when. A relatively tiny number were sold at gallery shows, and those are the very few where some worthwhile records exist. This is also true for many other artists of his generation.
The more we learn about Nirav Modi, fresh annals of deceit spill into the frame. When the Enforcement Directorate seized his firm’s remaining jewellery stock, after shuttering premises, they found it was worth less than a quarter of what was declared. Here too, outright fakes abounded. Recently, when the authorities foiled an audacious attempt by Modi’s half-brother to reclaim a cache of jewels in Hong Kong, they found pearls officially valued at millions of dollars were actually worth less than a tenth of that. Earlier this month, Los Angeles-based businessman Paul Alfonso sued Modi for $4.2 million claiming the jeweller sold him synthetic diamond engagement rings in January, bilking him out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. This scam also led to a broken engagement.
Given his unfettered crookedness, it may seem like poetic justice that Modi was himself suckered by some unscrupulous art dealer, dangling fakes and confident his aspirational client wouldn’t know the difference. But little amusement derives from how this high profile example illuminates an entirely broken system. India’s art market is bizarrely asymmetrical, with overwhelming emphasis placed on Souza and his contemporaries who emerged in a short span of the first half of the 20th century. Art collectors in this country generally come from newly moneyed families, and are used to buying brand names to burnish their image. Without an adequate critical, curatorial or gallery system in the country that nourishes living art cultures that includes artists across the generations, we are left with something of a Tower of Silence situation, like vultures picking at the dead.
Ranjit Hoskote says about this “excessive desire for the work of a few artists. Since most of them are, rather disobligingly, no longer with us, the demand for their art is met by other means. The only solution is for people who care—the estates of artists, foundations, museums, or coalitions among these stakeholders—to establish, for each of our major artists, an evolving, comprehensive and unquestionable catalogue raisonné. For each artist, this would serve as the all-encompassing database and navigational framework, against which any claim to authenticity would have to be mapped.”
Hoskote adds, “The obstacles in the path of anyone who would embark on such a project in India are, of course, stupendous. Artists have not always been meticulous in maintaining records, nor have galleries. Auction houses retain a clear record of transactions, but this would pertain only to a relatively small number of artists and works. Also, it is an extremely expensive enterprise—to bring together connoisseurial scholarship, conservation expertise, to provide for travel, research, publication, over a number of years as an open-ended project. The archival imagination in India needs a huge boost!”
Vivek Menezes is a widely published writer and photographer.