The same portrait in two works by Souza three decades apart threatens to snowball into a controversy the art fraternity hardly needs
Two auctions a week apart will close the Indian season this year, but what’s interesting is the way they are being viewed among the collectorati. There’s hardly any gainsaying that homegrown auction houses Osian’s and Saffronart, and Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Bonhams internationally, provided the thrust and then the sustenance for the movement of Indian modern and contemporary art. Their price estimates became a barometer for art prices, bringing in not so much transparency as talking points that helped most people at least arrive at a value bandwidth for artists.
It is strange, therefore, that Bid & Hammer’s auction last evening in New Delhi was viewed with unease by collectors even while they continue to look forward to Saffronart’s online auction of next week with somewhat more anticipation. The Bangalore-based Bid & Hammer’s attempt to grab a bite of the lucrative Delhi market has been viewed with something akin to suspicion by professionals who are uncomfortable about the art that went under the hammer last evening (but too late for this column to view the results). It’s especially odd given that the works in the two auctions can be perceived as having different strengths. The reason for the discomfort, though, is based on the authenticity checks and level of background detailing for the auction lots.
Both the catalogue and the preview of the Bid & Hammer show has pointed to concerns among collectors who say they are unfamiliar with the particular style by Nicholas Roerich (Monk in the Himalaya series), insist that Rabindranath Tagore’s Face of a Lady has an uncanny resemblance to a similar painting in the National Gallery of Modern Art collection, that the Raja Ravi Varma works attributed to the master require much more due diligence by way of provenance. But mostly it is F N Souza’s Mary Magdalene that has the art fraternity chin-wagging about what many perceive to be three different paintings that, here, combine on the same canvas. This painting, dated 1956, has Christ’s crucifixion, a cityscape in the background, and a portrait in the foreground of Mary Magdalene which is an exact likeness of a much later – 1984 – painting titled Portrait of Suruchi Chand. Souza met Chand only in 1982 and drew her in the same year, but painted the likeness (as appears in this “1956” work as Mary Magdalene) in 1984.
The Suruchi Chand portrait was listed on the website of the Souza Estate and, last year, was auctioned by Saffronart. Souza’s notes on Chand are well documented. “She’s like swallowing a glass of brandy,” he wrote in his notes of the “girl, woman, lady, goddess”. The near-three decade difference in the two paintings is therefore mysterious — and likely to trigger a controversy that the art industry at this time can ill-afford.
The Saffronart auction (on December 8 and 9) beside generating a buzz around the Rs8-10 crore Arpita Singh artwork, which could well become the most expensive work of art to be ever auctioned in India, has all the usual suspects on which it has built its reputation — Souza, of course (with some of his chemical alterations at an extremely attractive entry estimate of Rs1.25 lakh), Ram Kumar, S H Raza, M F Husain, Jehangir Sabavala and co.
But the battle lines appear drawn over the curious case of Suruchi Chand. It is extremely difficult for even the most professional art institution to fully authenticate or track works since artists and, till recently, galleries were quite lax about the paperwork. As a result, provenance has rapidly developed into a minefield which organisations such as Saffronart have gone a long way to eliminate. Portrait of Suruchi Chand fetched Rs18.4 lakh at the Saffronart auction last year. The same portrait as part of Mary Magdalene (estimate: Rs1.10-1.35 crore) has now drawn the Saffronart work into what threatens to snowball into a controversy. Will both Saffronart and Bid & Hammer stand up to explain in the interest of collectors who’re sure there’s more to the case of the two Suruchi Chands than is at first apparent?
These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which the writer is associated.