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Counter Feat: Could you be duped by a fake work of art?

India’s growing art market is also seeing a corresponding rise in clever forgeries.

art and culture Updated: Feb 12, 2017 09:53 IST
Rachel Lopez
Rachel Lopez
Hindustan Times
Art Forgery

Can you tell the MF Hussain original and the forgery apart? Forgers go to great length to pass their work off as legitimate. The one on the left is the fake, incidentally; it was created using a serigraph by the master artist.(HT Photo)

Print counterfeit currency – you’ll end up behind bars. Produce bogus property deeds – you’ll end up in court. Try to sell fake jewellery as real – you’ll be arrested for fraud.

Forge a painting from India’s masters or create a new one in their style, and you just might end up on the walls of India’s drawing rooms.

As India’s appetite for art grows – domestic sales made up close to 60% of last year’s Rs 600 crore auction sales – so does one worry. Can India stay a step ahead of the parallel market in forgeries?

Fake artworks have been in the Indian market since the 1970s, when a slew of Jamini Roy works turned out to have been painted by unknown artists. Auction houses have withdrawn works and revoked sales when some Indian works have turned out to be forgeries. Galleries have cancelled shows when as many as 12 paintings were identified as fake by the artist. Some paintings have shown up on auction when their originals are still in private collections.

“Forgers are getting smarter and are getting away with it,” says Priya Khanna founder of Delhi’s Art Life Restoration Trust, which restored several paintings damaged in the November 2008 attack on Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel. Khanna’s trust works on 100 works a month. She ends up rejecting two or three works, typically from the Modern and post-Independence period, because they are fake.

Read: A show puts original and fake work side by side, think you can spot the difference?

Tarnish and varnish

Replicating an artwork takes paint, canvas, talent and fair bit of elbow grease. The clumsiest attempt to replicate each stroke and shade by hand; smarter ones will strip an old canvas, steep it in tea or coffee, paint it, varnish it and bake it so cracks appear.

Khanna was once asked to restore a work that seemed a bit off – all the lines seemed right but the work itself looked flat. It turned out to be a digital print on canvas. “The forger had cleverly done the edges in oil paint, knowing that’s where I’d scratch it to check for authenticity,” she says. Another attempt to clean a work revealed another trick – a work painted over in burnt umber so it looked legitimately old, dusty.

Fakes tend to enter the market just when an artist has done well at auction or a big sale. It’s when appetites are whetted and it’s easier to scam a buyer with a tale of a long-lost work, or a lucky new find. Works are copied by assistants or art-school students unknowingly assigned a project. They’re slipped into circulation by framers, dealers and often even relatives of a deceased artist.

Watch: The Art Of The Con, an art forger takes you into the murky, colourful world of producing a fake

Close up, close call

For those in the know, determining if a work is real or a fake is an art in itself.

Sneha Shah, an alumna of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art in Italy, says there are usually giveaways. The cracking patterns point to the varnish fissuring from being rolled up, not from age. Pigment analyses reveal the paint is decades newer than the canvas, evenly faded paintings refute claims that they were hanging by a window for decades. Under a magnifying glass, Khanna has found pencil lines under artists’ signatures – no painter needs two tries to sign his name right.

Discrepancies in style show up too. Shah is a manager at the Piramal Museum of Art in Lower Parel, which is currently showing Likeness Without Reference – The Cultures of Forgery, a show that puts original and attributed works side by side to highlight the differences. One Ravi Varma work in the show seems legitimate until you notice the inelegantly chunky calves on the male figure. Other fakes reveal similar shortcomings – the eyes in a Jamini Roy work don’t end in a point; motifs appear from other works; noses, fingertips and expressions seem contrary to the style. “Many fakes are designed as in-between works within an oeuvre to make them seem legitimate,” says Shah.

For forgers and investigators the internet has been both a blessing and a curse. The world’s museums, archives, libraries and private collections are sharing their treasures online. Google’s Art Project alone has more than 45,000 artworks in such detail that they reveal brushwork details that a face-to-face examination cannot.

If art lovers have unprecedented access to a series of works separated space and time, forgers too can study a master’s early style with a few mouse clicks. Gallery shows are archived online, so if forgers know what to fake, experts know exactly whom to call to locate or confirm a “missing” work.

Zoom in: The Google Art Project has close to 19,000 works on view from India. See them all up close...

Framing a solution

Auction houses now ask for infra-red tests, ultra-violet scans and condition reports to confirm authenticity. But Khanna finds that buyers are reluctant to heed the results. “They say ‘The painter’s son says it’s real. Do you think you know more than him?’” she says.

Most deceased artists’ works are authenticated by their families – most of whom are not trained experts or quick to legitimise a fake for a fee. Khanna says the Delhi Art Gallery has a team dedicated to documentation and research, but smaller galleries don’t have the resources for it.

“We need an independent body to authenticate works. A team with experts in different styles because no single person can study them all intimately and a team is funded by the government and doesn’t charge a fee,” says Khanna.

Many experts have been stressing the need for a catalogue raisonné, a comprehensive date-wise list of every known works by an artist, to prevent new ones from slipping in. Shah adds that the authentication from the first sale is very important.

What made Amrita Sher-Gil such a distinguished, admired (and copied) painter? Find out in this Film’s Division short