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Making a fortune: French dealers posed as museum curators to get furniture in hand

Le Corbusier, considered the pioneer of the modern architecture, rated his work in Chandigarh as his crowning glory and the items associated with him during his Chandigarh stint are in great demand, especially in Europe.

chandigarh Updated: Jul 15, 2014 15:05 IST
Saurabh Duggal
Saurabh Duggal
Hindustan Times
Chandigarh,Le Corbusier,modern architecture

Le Corbusier, considered the pioneer of the modern architecture, rated his work in Chandigarh as his crowning glory and the items associated with him during his Chandigarh stint are in great demand, especially in Europe.

French dealers — Eric Touchaleaume, Patrick Sequin, Phillippe Jouse and Francols Laffanour — knew of t he demand, but preferred not to let it be known during their numerous visits to Chandigarh for acquiring fur niture of Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret’s era.

They projected themselves as exhibitors and museum curators. During the purchase they told government officials that they wanted to organise an exhibition on Chandigarh and display these items in museums across Europe. Under this pretext, they even got hold of some of the private collections.

City-based photographer Suresh Sharma lost his work and personal collection of photos of Le Corbusier-era to Frenchman Eric. Later, these were auctioned at London’s Christie’s.

Eric procured 2,000 rare negatives of the 60s from Sharma and even got an undertaking that he could use it in any form. “Eric told me that he would use these photographs in a book and hold an exhibition in Paris. I was taken in by the fact that my collection would be exhibited internationally. I thought ‘any form’ means either it would be used for the exhibition or for the book,” said Sharma.


Eric, the first one off the blocks in buying Corbusier-era furniture, gave a representation dated June 15, 1999, to then principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture (CCA), Lt Col IJS Bakshi (retd), regarding requisition of furniture designed by Corbusier and Jeanneret. The application said he wanted the furniture so that it could be displayed in museums as antique pieces.

“During Eric’s visit to the campus, we were told that he (Eric) was looking for a furniture item, to be displayed at a museum in France, especially dedicated to Corbusier. We were excited and showed him all the furniture items we had in the college,” said CCA principal Pardeep Bhagat, who was then an assistant professor and the store in-charge.

“On the basis of that request, Eric managed to buy furniture from the college. It was only in 2007 when the furniture was auctioned at a London-based auction house that we came to know that he never procured the furniture for the museum, but he wanted to make money out of it,” he added.

French dealers Patrick, Phillippe and Francols, during their visit to Panjab University in early 2000s, for buying old furniture, gave a representation to authorities that their Parisbased company Galary Jousse Sequin has been specialising for 20 years in conducting exhibitions and in publishing about architecture and furniture from the 1950s. This was the purpose they quoted for buying unused old furniture in various departments of the university campus.

“As curators, we have set up exhibitions in various places, museums in particular –in France, Germany, Spain or in the USA. So as to do, we have an important capital at our disposal so that we can buy furniture we want to feature in our shows,” wrote the French dealers – Patrick, Phillippe and Francols – in their correspondence (dated February 7, 2000) to then varsity registrar.

The French team also referred to the procurement of the furniture done by their company in French Universities, City International University of Paris and Residence University D’Antony.

No reference was however made of their previous auctions of old furniture items in the 90s.

“A meeting of these French dealers with vice-chancellor MM Puri took place at his residence. The next day, a representation was given to the registrar and they were allowed to visit different departments looking for the furniture,” said a PU official, who played a role in selling the furniture to the French.

After visiting various buildings of the university, the French team made their inventory and wrote to Puri, offering their pricelist and managed to get a number of items.


First Published: Jul 15, 2014 15:00 IST