Chandigarh godown to Paris Auction: Making a fortune out of Le Corbusier's junked furniture
Every now and then, there are reports of furniture and artefacts designed by Chandigarh architect, Le Corbusier, and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret going under the hammer in auction houses art galleries in Europe and the US for thousands of dollars apiece.
Ever wondered about the exorbitant prices at which the city’s heritage furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret half a century ago, is auctioned abroad even as it evoked little buying interest while it was stored in the city? Sample this:
October 31, 2002 — A wooden drawing table also known a ‘donkey desk’ fetches Rs.15 at an open auction held at the Government College of Art.
2007 — The same table fetches Rs. 86 lakh at an auction at London’s venerable auction house.
June 23, 1999 — A PU library table sold for Rs. 4,500 and auctioned for Rs.82 lakh in 2007
December 15, 2004 —A three-seater sofa from Punjab and Haryana high court was auctioned for Rs. 1,507; in April this year, it was auctioned in London for Rs.37.87 lakh.
Here is the story of the travel of these heritage items from the city’s godowns to European locales.
FROM CITY TO PARIS TO AUCTION HOUSES
In January 1999, the city was celebrating 50 years of its existence, when a French art dealer Eric Touchaleaume, the owner of Galerie54 in Paris, was in the city along with other foreign delegates to attend a conference titled ‘Celebrating Chandigarh: 50 years of the Idea’, held at Panjab University (January 7-11, 1999).
It was during his stay here that he thought of buying these items from Chandigarh and set a well thought out plan in motion.
Touchaleaume returned home, but was back in two months. Through his local connections, developed at the January conference, Eric met then UT adviser Jagdish Sagar in April and floated the idea for buying old furniture designed by Corbusier and Jeanneret, saying that he (Eric) wanted to display these items at a gallery.
On Eric’s representation the adviser issued an office order, dated April 18, 1999, stating: “Please see the letter below from Eric Touchaleaume, the contents of which are self-explanatory… it had been agreed that the best solution would be to auction the furniture in question and let him bid along with the others…’.This note became a reference point for allowing the auction of the furniture designed by Corbusier and his cousin for government departments.
“I don’t know the year, but I do remember that in accordance with the UT administration’s instructions, some of the wooden furniture, to be written off, was sent for an open auction conducted either by the UT engineering or the urban and planning department at the UT secretariat. Later, I came to know some French guy had bought the furniture from the auction,” said Suraj P Nagpal, chief librarian at Central Library, Sector 17. The library furniture too fetched six-figure prices at auctions overseas. “I also remember a French guy visiting the library and offering to replace the existing table at the librarian’s room with a Godrej product worth up to Rs.60,000. Thankfully, it was saved,” Nagpal added. In April, Eric visited PU and gave a representation for buying old furniture.
On June 23, 1999, he tasted his first success in acquiring Corbusier era furniture and purchased 501 items, including chairs, tables etc, for Rs 2,12,250.He also made a request for requisition of furniture to the then principal of Chandigarh College of Architecture Lt Col IJS Bakshi (retd).
A committee was set up to make an inventory of old and unserviceable furniture. An auction did take place in October — with Eric getting his first major success in acquiring old furniture through auction.
For the next two years, he bought all he could, from Corbusier’s rough drawings to photographs depicting his work. During each visit, Eric met Giani Ratan Singh (Corbusier’s official modeller) and procured old stuff lying unnoticed at Singh’s residence.
“We gave him some items for free and he paid for some. He even purchased old models and drawing boards, which I bought from an auction held at the UT urban and planning department,” says Jaswinder, Singh’s son.
“Eric told us he wanted to display the items in Galerie54. It was only later we came to know that they were auctioned abroad.”
PU FURNITURE ALSO TARGETED
Getting wind of Eric’s plan, Frenchmen Patrick Sequin, Philippe Jouse and Francos Laffanour, visited Chandigarh in 2000 and targeted Panjab University.
They managed to buy unused and broken furniture lying at various departments, including the AC Joshi Library.
“It was in 2000, when I meet Patrick, Philippe and Francos along with a white-skinned lady on campus. They were searching for old furniture. I referred them to the vice-chancellor. The next day, a circular was out to all departments, asking for an inventory of the furniture. They bought some of the furniture available in the store at that time only. And by year-end, all broken furniture was sent to the Central Store at Sector 25 and their agent Carl bought it for around Rs.11 lakh,” says a PU official, who was part of the process.
“The material was kept in a godown in Industrial Area Phase-1 and later, a Delhi-based exporter sent it to Paris,” said another PU official.
CAN OVERSEAS AUCTIONS BE STOPPED?
Though, the UT administration had approached Indian embassies in cities where these auctions were held to stop them a number of times, nothing could be done as dealers were in possession of documents proving that the furniture was sourced legally from open auctions by the government or from private possessors.
The question is when these Frenchmen bought these items and entered into various deals during their visits to Chandigarh, did they have a business or tourist visa? If they were on a tourist visa, then they could not have engaged in any business transactions, rendering their acquisition of the furniture illegal. This is an angle that the administration must explore in its quest to stop similar auctions in future.