The Indian art scene unveiled

Jan 29, 2012, 11:42 IST | SMD Team

An art book for the layman and dummy for potential buyers, Abhay Maskara's book on the Indian art world offers insight into the big world of art

An art book for the layman and dummy for potential buyers, Abhay Maskara's book on the Indian art world offers insight into the big world of art

Abhay Maskara, owner of the eponymous gallery in Colaba has launched a book on the Indian art 'scene' for potential buyers and newbies looking for insight into the operations of the often obsfuscatory art world. "The book will likely strike a chord with those actively involved with art -- as a creator, mediator or consumer.

However, since this is first-and-foremost a book about collecting art, buyers will clearly benefit the most," said Maskara. The gallerist, whose engagement with Indian art began in his teens, has peppered the narrative with anecdotes and personal learnings. One of the issues he addresses in the book is the reduction of art into an investment. "This is especially relevant in the present times where the economics seem to have overtaken the aesthetics. However, there is still plenty of opportunity and good reason to re-engage with art," he said.

"Even the most gifted artists are usually very simple people. Some of them may grapple with complex socio-political issues but their core is simple. A meaningful engagement with art should be no different," he said.
Read an extract from his book, An Insider's View of the Indian Art World, where Maskara talks about an important lesson learnt during his early days of collecting Indian art.

An Insider's View of the Indian Art World published by Gallery Maskara for Rs 395

The curious case of the dealer...
This is a true story that happened in 1997. It taught me, early in my years of collecting, how easy it is to get lured into an art scam. A purportedly reputable gallery situated in South Mumbai offered me a Ganesh Pyne mixed media-on-paper work. As a relatively new and amateurish buyer, I was intimidated every time I stepped into the hallowed room of a new gallery, and this experience was no exception. The gallery manager was bustling with confidence, and he spoke with authority and used a lot of jargon. After gauging me for a bit and quizzing me about what I collect, he whipped out a Pyne from his backroom. In the mid 1990's, it was not often that one saw Pynes lying around with dealers. So the fact that he actually had one in stock caught my attention and I was drawn to the subject of the work. After examining the picture for style and signature, and believing that I was inside a 'real' gallery, I felt quite satisfied. So without fuss we agreed on a price, and I was the proud owner of a wonderful Pyne, or so I thought... It was a skeletal image of a fisherman holding the carcass of a fish, in typical Pyne style. In the following days as I viewed the painting hung in my bedroom, I felt a sense of unease enveloping me. Somehow the work just did not seem right, so I decided to get a second opinion from an expert. Naturally I chose my gallerist friends, all of whom looked at the work, and after some preliminary examination, also felt that the work in question was authentic. It was a typical Pyne signed by the artist, doubly authenticated on the back by a known critic and there really was no reason to doubt it. A few days later, something about the image started to bother me once more. This time I was determined to finally put my mind to rest by going directly to the source for an irrefutable answer. I managed to get Ganesh Pyne on the phone and after a brief conversation, we agreed to meet at his residence in Kolkata. A week later, I flew from Mumbai to his home and awaited his examination and judgment. He looked at the work and immediately proclaimed it to be a fake, but refused to give me anything in writing to this effect. I was perplexed at his reluctance to give me confirmation of the fake, but on my way home figured that he did it to safeguard his market. A public admission by an artist that his works are being faked can have a damaging effect on buyer confidence, and can depress demand and prices. Shattered and relieved at the news, I immediately contacted the gallery on return to Mumbai and demanded my money back. As a preventive measure, I published a letter in the January 1998 issue of Art India magazine alerting the art-buying public to stay away from that particular work.

...And the curious case of the dry cleaner
Around the same time, I visited my local dry cleaner up the street where I live. To my astonishment, I found that he had two framed works by K.H Ara just lying on the table. Puzzled, I asked the manager about the objects and he promptly handed over the frames to me. He said they had been in his possession for several decades and were gifted to him by the artist, who was a regular at the drycleaner's. He now wanted to sell them and quoted a price. I liked the pictures, the price was reasonable and I was tempted. But finding original art at a drycleaner seemed so bizarre and unexpected, that I voiced my concerns. The owner was confident. "You are our regular client," he said, and with these words he simply gave me the works to allay my doubts. As usual, I took the works to known insiders - experienced gallerists, international auction experts and the like. All were just as certain as I was, that the works were genuine. However, as soon as they learned that they were was obtained from a drycleaner, it suddenly seemed too good to be true. My intuition was strongly in favor of the works, but in the end collective advice and conventional wisdom prevailed, and the works were duly returned. I discovered much later that Ara was indeed a regular at that particular drycleaner, and may likely have gifted or bartered a few of his works to them. To this day, when I think back, I am struck by the irony of it all. It was an early lesson that in art there are no sinners and no saints. Since that experience, I have exposed many a fake that I found in galleries and auctions, publicly sticking my neck out in the news media to safeguard others from being taken in.The problem is that there are no public or private archives to speak of, nor are there any complete records with the artist's surviving family members, that can serve as a means to authenticate the works. This is further exacerbated by some unscrupulous dealers, and on rare occasions even artists themselves may be in the know of such fakes, but prefer to ignore or dismiss the whole issue. Sometimes family members of artists try and make ends meet by cashing in on the artist's fame, by letting out fakes in the market. So how do you protect yourself from this growing menace? What are some things to look for when buying art and what are some of the key questions you should ask?

Stop press
On December 17, just after we had closed the issue, a buyer, Abhay Maskara called to say that he had some news, which he wished to share with other buyers and collectors. Reproduced below is Mr. Maskara's statement along with a reproduction of the painting in question.

Dear Anupa,
With reference to our tele-con this afternoon, please find colour photocopy of the painting in question. The original has been returned to the dealer. Just to reiterate our conversation I am writing below the chain of events as it happened.A few months ago I purchased a Ganesh Pyne from a gallery in Bombay. It was a 14" x 11" watercolour on paper and looked as if it was done at least 15 to 20 years ago. On inquiring about the authenticity of the painting, the dealer showed me the back of the painting on which read "I certify this as a genuine painting of Ganesh Pyne" signed Sukanta Basu and dated 10/05/97.For some reason, I was not completely satisfied with the authenticity and I took the painting with me to Calcutta last week and showed it to the artist. The artist confirmed that the painting was a fake. He too was shocked and appalled at the blatant forgery but expressed his helplessness in the matter and sympathized with my misfortune. He was also amazed at how Mr. Basu has authenticated the painting. At this point, I would not like to malign the gallery where I purchased the painting. It is possible that the gallery too was a victim of fraud. I would just like those who buy art to be more aware of this growing menace.
Signed Abhay Maskara

Editor's note at the bottom: Following our meeting with Mr. Maskara, we called Ganesh Pyne in Calcutta. In the ensuing telephonic conversation, Ganesh Pyne categorically stated that he had seen the 'said painting' and that it was not painted by him. - End of Article

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