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Art for mart's sake

The price of art works has always been bewildering, whether that of a Renaissance masterpiece or that of contemporary Indian paintings sold at auctions. Farrukh Dhondy writes.

india Updated: Mar 20, 2012 07:42 IST
Farrukh Dhondy

Britain is bust but sharp ironies beset its bankruptcy. The government proposes cutting taxes for the rich, the summer Olympic Games are costing billions of pounds and last week, the National Galleries of England and Scotland, with added money from government and patrons, bought a single painting from the Duke of Sutherland for £45 million (approximately Rs 3,600 million). They said they were “saving the painting for the nation”.

The Duke of Sutherland, though richer through the sale, has been lauded for resisting the temptation to sell it on the open market. He patriotically, it is said, sacrificed twice or more of that sum through this sale.

The painting is Titian’s Diana and Callisto, acknowledged as one of the great works of the Renaissance and one of a pair, its twin being Titian’s Diana and Actaeon. Together they have fetched £95 million and have been valued at three times that price — hence the praise for the Duke’s patriotic sacrifice.

The paintings are not in any sense part of Britain’s heritage. Titian was born Tiziano Vecelli in the state of Venice and his paintings were commissioned mostly by the Italian church and nobility. In later years, he was patronised by Phillip II of Spain who married Queen Mary of England, but Titian’s works didn’t come to Britain through such an alliance, though the Diana paintings were commissioned for the Escorial in Madrid.

Classical and Renaissance artefacts were acquired by the aristocracy of Europe through the ages and changed hands through coercion or commerce.

The joke that circulated in Britain after the urban riots and open looting in British cities in the summer of last year was: Question: “Where did these young looters get the idea that you could break in and take stuff that didn’t belong to you?” Answer: “Er... have you ever been to the British Museum?” (An equally good answer could involve the Kohinoor diamond, but it would be akin to Bollywood imitation to adapt the joke and I can’t be bothered to think of the precise punch-line.)

The price of art has always been bewildering, but then so has the fact that boys and girls who sing songs can become billionaires overnight as their offerings climb the charts. In the same bracket of annoyance are the wages of professional footballers who, with an enviable skill and luck, can earn in a week more than billions of people earn in a lifetime.

In a higher bracket of indignation — causing frustration — are the bonuses that bankers and controlling capitalists pay themselves for fooling around with other people’s money and living off the sweat of other people’s labour while maintaining the pretence that they are in some unfathomable sense the ‘creators’ of wealth.

Even so, I would agree that Titian’s Diana and Callisto is in the top rank of civilisation’s artefacts and though judgement of a painting is ultimately in the eye of the beholder, few would equate a Titian or a Tintoretto with the efforts of, say, a contemporary Indian artist who illustrates horses in a faux-modern style.

Even so, I was till recently pleasantly surprised by the prices that the work of hundreds of Indian painters was fetching. An old friend, a dealer who lives and works in Dubai, attempted, after a few rum cocktails, to give me an explanation for this sudden popularity of Indian art. It’s bought, he said, for a price in India and then finds its way to a tax-haven such as Dubai where it is publicly auctioned. The agents of the owner clandestinely bid for the artefact, raising their paws to indicate very large multiples of the original price thus acquiring the painting. A receipt for the sale changes hands and legitimises the large sum of money transferred, possibly turning what we call ‘black money’ into ‘white’. The art laundry?

That such a mechanism enriches artists or puts higher and higher premiums on their work is fine. In a sense it’s a more ‘honest’ and purposeful inflationary device than the snobbery, fakery and emperor’s-new-clothes-ism that infests the sale of fraudulent western ‘artists’ who subsist without the least mastery of craft on ‘installations’ of empty echoing rooms, stuffed dead animals or dirty ruffled beds strewn with the detritus of a vain life.

The sin of envy is based on comparison and on a perception, through some unfair vicissitude of fortune, on missing out. On hearing of the sum paid for the Diana I couldn’t help but recall a persistent family legend:

In my father’s childhood, his grandfather Jamshedji Saklatwalla had acquired from a French collector in Paris a painting which was arguably the ‘missing’ one of a trio of Titian Venuses. Jamshedji’s expensive acquisition was titled Venus Reclining to Music and portrayed the nude figure of the goddess doing just that. Jamshedji had framed and mounted it in the sitting room of the ancestral home in Byculla, Mumbai.

One story goes that a visiting Parsi priest, who wasn’t very up on Renaissance art, was mesmerised by the nude figure as he waited for my great-grandfather to emerge and when he did asked in as polite a way as Parsi Gujarati would allow, “What induced Jaiji (Jamshedji’s wife) to indulge this fancy?”

Jamshedji travelled with his Venus through the length and breadth of Europe trying to get her authenticated as a Titian but, despite being not openly discouraged by the art experts of the time, never got a definite endorsement. ‘Of the school of’ was as far as the experts would go.

His sons, my father’s mamajis, who wouldn’t know a Titian from tissue paper, disposed, unprofitably, of the canvas after Jamshedji’s death. Now if it had been authenticated and stayed in the family...

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London

The views expressed by the author are personal