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ART FOR ART'S SAKE

Friday, April 13, 2018

Sotheby’s Boundless: Mumbai will showcase important works by South Asia’s greatest artists as well as western artists inspired by South Asia,
says Ronita Torcato

Later this year, before the jolly season Christmas heigh ho, Sotheby’s, a leading international auction house plans to launch sales in India with Boundless: Mumbai. To be held at a five-star hotel in the city, Boundless: Mumbai will include  important works by South Asia’s greatest artists as well as artworks by western artists inspired and influenced by the art, culture, geography and peoples of South Asia. With art sourced from collections across the subcontinent and globally, the sale will help collectors  acquire museum-quality works from such categories such as Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art, Photography, Prints, and Design.

One of Tyeb Mehta’s most important works, Durga Mahisasura Mardini (a portrayal of the Hindu goddess Durga defeating the mythical buffalo demon, Mahisasura) will  lead the sale. This seminal painting was commissioned directly from the artist in 1993 and has remained in a private collection since, appearing on the market for the first time later this year.

This painting is a prelude to the artist’s iconic Celebrations and Mahisasura series, making it amongst the artist’s most significant and rarest works. Tyeb Mehta’s  current auction record stands at US$3.6 million. I can't afford Mehta. Perhaps I never will. But never mind me. After all I can still visit museums and art galleries, which I do, I do. All the time! And do note, gentle reader, that in the past five years, the number of Indians across all Sotheby’s global sales has almost doubled. Indian clients have bought over $250 million of art over this period.

For many, art is an investment. For the rest? Wish one could say. Bernard Berenson, the  1930s American art critic and collector,  is said to have made judgements  based upon the emotional and physical sensations that he felt when looking at a painting. (If he experienced vertigo or felt depressed, he felt a painting was a forgery.)

Today's art authenticators employ particle accelerators  and computer programs to analyse brushstrokes.   X-rays are  commonly used by art authenticators abroad, who may take paintings  to a laboratory where a  fragment of wood from the frame is subjected to carbon dating. An example is  Pablo Picasso's The Old Guitarist (1903). X-rays revealed that this painting initially started as an old woman with her head bent.

Another example is the Dutch artist Johannes  Vermeer's masterwork Girl with a Pearl Earring (1665-66). Lead was a primary component in white paint in  Vermeer's time. The brighter areas on the X-ray show where Vermeer used white, thus  creating the luminous glow that the picture  has become famous for. Few may be aware a young maid-servant working in Vermeer's household became his assistant and the model for this famous painting.   

India has had its share of art frauds and  scams. And the shrewd buyer should take pains to avoid being taken advantage of. What can those seriously contemplating buying artworks, do? In a world of  fakes and forgeries how to acquire the Real Thing?  How to buy at galleries negotiating with dealers or artists in their studios and at online auctions?  

The important thing to look out for when buying, is documentation: say, a certificate of authenticity that will attest provenance. These certificates MUST be attested by qualified authorities on the artists in question, AND the artists themselves.

Buying "attributed" art is risky business. Why? Because attributions made by unqualified individuals have no value. Who then can be trusted as an authority? Preferably, the artists themselves.

Secondly, experts  who have  studied art or the artists, curated  shows, taught courses, bought or sold works of art, written extensively and in depth. Buyers must research an  artist's  career, evaluate the art work's characteristics, spot damage if any and potential problems, keep track of ownership history and maintain  files on paintings displayed at home  or their office premises. Art patrons must not be selfish. For art is not a selfish pleasure.The joy and beauty of a painting is best shared with fellow art lovers.

Otherwise, one may wind up like billionaire J Paul Getty who loved art more than his family. And died alone in his bedroom cradling Vermeer's Madonna and Child, according to the gospel of Ridley Scott in his crime thriller, All the Money in the World. I can't remember if that ran to packed houses. But Loving Vincent, the hand-drawn animated biopic on Vincent van Gogh, did.

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