A current exhibition of 20 bronze sculptures at New Delhi’s Gallery Espace is believed to be the largest assembly of previously unseen work by Bengali artist Somnath Hore and has been heralded as unprecedented by many in the art world. Except by Hore’s family.
A week after the opening of the show Agony and Ecstasy, the wife and daughter of Hore, who died last year, say many, if not all, of the pieces are fakes. The original of at least one, his daughter said, is in her possession in Santiniketan. “We are sure the sculptures are not real,” said Chandana Hore, an artist herself. She has not seen the exhibit but was sent a catalogue by a friend. “At least one of the pieces is definitely fake, because we have the original… Of the rest, three look familiar but the rest are fabrications.”
However, Espace is convinced of both the lineage and authenticity of the works, which, it said, were mostly from a private collection, made in the 1980s and explore themes like poverty, motherhood and survival. “We would not be showing them and documenting them in a catalogue if we didn’t think they were (original),” said Arjun Sawhney, spokesman for Renu Modi, the gallery’s owner.
Mint asked two art experts for their opinion on the works — Neville Tuli, chairman of Osian’s Connoissuers of Art Pvt Ltd, who has sold Hore’s works through his auction house; and Naveen Kishore, Kolkata-based publisher of Seagull Books Pvt Ltd and a friend of Hore who arranged an exhibition of 54 of the artist’s works in 1994. Both raised questions on authenticity, saying they felt at least some of the sculptures were fakes, likely recast from the original wax models by someone familiar with Hore’s work.
The conflict and uncertainty underscores a critical problem in India’s booming art industry. After years of growth and skyrocketing prices, lack of formal cataloguing, authentication and standardised protocol for tracking the sales of artwork makes it difficult, if not impossible, to ascertain if pieces sold today are truly masterpieces or fakes.
Ella Datta, art critic and columnist, wrote the introduction to the catalogue for Espace. On Sunday, she said she was convinced of the sculptures’ originality. She said she had studied the works herself and felt that at least two-thirds were “beautiful and had the stylistic features of a Somnath Hore — stylised faces, flattened planes for the body, instead of voluminous”. The remaining pieces were perhaps not his best work, she said, but she wouldn’t call them fake.
Datta said allegations of fraud have been swirling around art sales in India for a while now and it reflects the need for a more robust system of checks.
The Espace show has the first pieces to appear for sale since Sotheby’s auctioned a small sculpture of Hore’s in 2005 for about $41,000. Hore’s sculptures have increased in value over the years; smaller pieces sell for as much Rs 15 lakh, which would peg the value of the Espace exhibition at about Rs 2 crore. But, regardless of the legality of the situation (it isn’t clear if the gallery has sold any of the works, and during a visit, a staff member said there was no price list), the art community in Delhi and elsewhere has been following it closely.
Sawhney said the gallery would issue a statement on Monday. Espace has “all the documentation, duly notarised, which we can make available”. “We are a credible, highly reputed gallery, and we see no reason why we should be answering these questions.”
Kishore said the pieces in question closely mimicked Hore’s style, but having owned and displayed the artist’s work for years, he could spot obvious flaws. “The pieces I have looked at are rubbish; there is no way Mr Hore did those,” he said after examining several photographs Mint took at Espace. “There are three pieces that look familiar, but mostly, they are non-existent work.”
Kishore and Tuli said they based their assessments on the quality of the patina, outer layers of the sculptures, which were smoother and less textured than those on Hore’s previous works. They also felt the expressions on the faces were less detailed. Chandana said the distinctive ears on one sculpture didn’t match her father’s simpler style.
Hore’s work has never been exhaustively catalogued, nor has there been any effort by the family or an arts foundation to create a single record of all his work, which also includes paintings. In September 2002, Hore himself was dismayed by the fact that fakes of his works had surfaced at auctions in Mumbai and Delhi. According to Chandana, he paid for an advertisement in major newspapers, warning fans and collectors. Now that he has died, “the best thing is to let the family… that is completely familiar with his work, judge them”, said Kishore.
The gallery pieces were mostly sourced from a single collector, Sugato Majumdar, a distant relative of Hore, said Sawhney. The sculptures were gifts, which explains why people intimate with Hore’s work would be unfamiliar with them, he said.
But Chandana, who reviewed her father’s records at Mint’s request, said: “Our father wouldn’t have gifted anybody these sculptures without our knowledge. I see no record of him ever having gifted anything to Sugato.”
Majumdar did not respond to several phone calls and text messages.
Tuli said it was possible Modi had been duped. “Ms Modi and her galleries are people of integrity and have done their work with transparency. I am convinced there is no intention to defraud. She’s done all she can do, but always, genuine mistakes are done by anyone.”
For Hore’s wife Reba, 82, the possible association of fake works with her husband’s name is painful. “This work has not been done by Somnath and it should not be displayed with his name. The originals have inner vibrations of an artist, but the fakes are dead; they don’t have that touch,” she said.
Inputs from Rajdeep Datta Roy and Maitreyee Handique.