The Risky Business of Art Authentication
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The Risky Business of Art Authentication

In the recent past, there has been an influx of counterfeit art of Pakistani modern masters; M.A. Chughtai (1894-1975), Ustad Allah Bux (1895-1978), Sadequain (1930-1987), Ahmed Parvez (1926-1979), Ismail Gulgee (1926-2007), Bashir Mirza (1941-2000) and Eqbal Mehdi (1946-2008), just to name a few. Although this practice is also prevalent in neighbouring India and Bangladesh where forgeries of M.F. Husain (1915-2011), F.N. Souza (1924-2002), Jamini Roy (1887-1972), Zainul Abideen (1914-1976), Kibria (1929-2011), Quamrul Hassan (1921-1988) and others frequently appear on the primary and secondary markets. However, Pakistan has earned quite a name in this field to the extent that reputable art dealers and auction houses now hesitate from sourcing works for their clients directly from Pakistan.

The US Department of Justice lists art crime as the third highest-grossing criminal trade worldwide, behind only drugs and arms. Art and cultural property crime – which includes theft, fraud, looting and trafficking worldwide – has estimated losses of $6-8 billion annually.1 2

At least on three separate occasions, I have raised red flags with international auction houses about the authenticity of the works included in their sale. On one occasion, a Sadequain (1930-1987) painting was offered by a New York auction house that I had seen for a certain hanging in the Lahore Museum behind the antique wooden arches. I happen to have a picture of that which I promptly sent to the head of sales at the time, informing her that this painting was in the Lahore Museum, and unless it was consigned by them it could not be the same painting. The auction house immediately withdrew the painting from its sale. On another occasion, from the 2020 South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Sale3, there was an offering of Zainul Abedin’s (1914-1976) “Rebellious Cow” which stirred my interest. I requested and reviewed the condition report, and also consulted with my Bangladeshi friends who directed me to a post on Facebook, started by the artist’s son and others, which was challenging the authenticity of the work and outright declaring it as a copy. I shared the link to the post with the head of sales, who soon after withdrew the painting from auction.

Another recent and relevant example is when a Quamrul Hassan (1921-1988) painting was offered to me by a gallery in Lahore which I came very close to acquiring. When I enquired about its provenance, I was told that it came from a local collector, and upon request was provided the image of the back of the painting and a closeup of the signature. While the back of the painting looked suspect to me as it had dark oil stains but the paint used in front looked like water-colour or tempera. The second red flag was the signature and date in Bengali. The date marked as 1978 was dubious as most of the works by Bangladeshi masters found in Pakistan are pre-1971, given most of them left after the war. The final check for me was with a senior Bangladeshi artist and friend Shahid Kabir who has spent time with Quamrul Hassan as a student at the University of Dhaka and in his studio. When I shared the image with Kabir asking him his view on the work, he outright replied to me with the following two words “super fake”. A certificate of authenticity, which holds no value, was promptly issued to me by the gallery owner stating that “This is an original painting painted by the hand of the artist”.

Disputed painting (front and back) of Lot 219 from Waddingtons Auction on International Contemporary and Modern Art, November 23-28, 2019. Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1897-1975), Bridal Dreams, Watercolour and pencil on thick paper; certified and titled by the artist’s son, Arif Chughtai, in pen and ink in 2019 in Lahore, Pakistan and stamped by the Chughtai Museum Trust, Lahore, Pakistan twice verso. PC: Waddingtons Auction House

From these experiences, it is clear that art collectors when acquiring works of deceased artists, cannot solely rely on certificates of authenticity provided by the galleries or auction houses or to them by someone else. The greatest assurance of its authenticity will come from the painting itself and/or from its provenance. Collectors should do their own due diligence by looking at the front and back of the painting for clues such as, condition, gallery and artist notes, signature etc. For example, on the back of an Unver Shafi Khan painting that recently came up for sale in an auction4, the artist signed and wrote “From the studio – 7pm, 2000, KHI”. A Bashir Mirza (1941-2000) painting acquired from artist P.Mansaram in Canada has in the left margin in Bashir Mirza’s hand-writing “To Mansaram with Affection – 91 – The bride given away” followed by his very intricate signature which is almost copy proof. This matches with the fact that P.Mansaram got this painting from Bashir Mirza when he stayed with him in Karachi in 1991 during his second visit to Pakistan and has pictures with Bashir Mirza to prove it. Therefore, this painting can be established as having an impeccable provenance.

Art authentication remains important, however, certificates of authenticity provided by galleries, artist trusts and foundations do not hold great value unless they have the artist’s statement and signature on them, which arguably could also be copied. Some exceptions hold, as stalwart gallery owners like Ali Imam of Indus Gallery and Zohra Hussain of Chawkandi Gallery in Karachi not only had the knowledge and records to authenticate works, they also spent considerable years dealing with the artists and their works.

Authenticating artworks is becoming increasingly complex, and the amount of forged works circulating in the market is frighteningly high. It is estimated that as much as 50%5, of the works sold every year are forgeries. This is due to organizations and people with no expertise and experience in authentication have opened their shops for business. For instance, the Sadequain Foundation in the USA authenticates Sadequain’s work for a fee, not withstanding the credentials of the authenticator and the conflict of interest as they re-produce hundreds of Sadequain paintings on giclee and other mediums, accentuates and sells them for a profit. Their publications on Sadequain are, to say the least, not well researched and definitely not unbiased. The fifteen or so books published in the last ten years have content that is largely superficial or plain reproduction of earlier publications on the artist. In one of their first coffee table publications titled Rubaiyyat-e-Sadequain Naqqash – Collection of rubaiyyat and illustrative drawings sold on Amazon; ironically an artist was hired by the Foundation to change Sadequain’s exquisite nudes so that the book could be sold in Pakistan. This, in my view, is a complete desecration of the artist’s creativity with no regard for maintaining his original thought and expression. Sadequain himself did not compromise his art during his lifetime, in particular, his exhibition of figurative paintings in Lahore in the 1970s was ransacked and works destroyed, but he refused to take them off.

The bride given away from Bashir Mirza’s sealed lips series, acrylic on paper, 1991 (Collection of Shehla and Ali Adil Khan). PC: Ali Adil Khan

Similarly, there is wide-spread belief in art circles that a close relative of Chughtai and a close friend of Ahmed Parvez have been authenticating copies and recycling these questionable works to galleries and auction houses. In both cases, the duped collectors have pointed out on the internet that the works authenticated by them were later confirmed as copies. For example, between 2009-2019 more than a dozen disputed paintings by Chughtai were consigned to Waddington’s auction house in Toronto and sold to the highest bidders for hefty sums All of these paintings apparently came from the same source and were authenticated at the back as original works of art by the Chughtai Museum Trust based in Lahore.

Being an authenticator means being a connoisseur of art. Most authenticators have studied an artist, or an era of art, closely for years. In many cases, they have researched and taught on the subject, written scholarly works, examined dozens if not hundreds of works by an artist, and curated exhibitions.

Forbes magazine6, recently did a full story on the record sale of Leonardo DaVinci’s “Salvator Mundi”7 painting in 2017 to MBS for $450 million at Christie’s auction in New York. It was proven later, contrary to the authentications provided by the auction house. that in fact the work was produced in his studio by his students with minor touch ups performed by the artist himself. A scientific analysis by three experts at the Louvre in Paris concluded that the painting was produced in Leonardo’s workshop but not by the Renaissance master himself.8

The key question that comes to mind here is who is making these copies?  Generally, those artists who’s works do not sell well, start dabbling in making copies of masters to make money. They study and master the technique and strokes, and also in some cases the signatures. There are several who’s names are common knowledge and specialize in a particular artist, such as Chughtai, Jamil Naqsh, Sadequain, Ahmed Parvez and Ismail Gulgee. Such artists are doing a great dis-service to their fraternity and must be discouraged from doing such acts.

The galleries and auction houses must do extensive research and due diligence on the provenance of the painting or art object being offered. They must ask the sellers/consigners of works questions that make them uncomfortable, such as:

  • How did the painting get into your hands and when?
  • Did you buy it from the artist or a gallery? Do you have proof of purchase? Or a photograph of it with the artist or hanging in your home?
  • Was the work exhibited in any local or global exhibitions and was it written about in any publication?

Also, galleries and auction houses on behalf of their clients should not settle on obtaining an authenticity certificate from the sons or nephews or friends and other family members of the artist because they have a clear conflict of interest. It is unconceivable but true that in some cases they may want an authentic work to not sell and a copy to sell.

If the auction houses inadvertently sell a work that turns out to be a forgery, in most cases it will refund the buyer. However, quite often it cannot indemnify itself by claiming against the consignor or forger, hence bears a huge loss. This is not good for collectors of genuine art works from the region. Furthermore, forgery of paintings by masters erodes the collective cultural history of a nation and taints the legacy that important artists leave behind.

Living artists can also do their part in preventing copies of their work to be made in the future. A more recent practice by contemporary miniature artists from Pakistan to prevent copies is to put their thumb impression along with their signatures in English and Urdu.

Untitled painting by Unver Shafi Khan (front and back) showing artist’s signature, year, location and time painting was made. Scratched out suggested price is also visible (Collection of Shehla and Ali Adil Khan). PC: Ali Adil Khan

Artists’ habits of work, choice of material and concern for longevity of their art is also of great consequence. Only a few artists could afford the best paints and brushes and cared about the chemistry of material they used. This will explain why so many works of leading artists of that era have been lost, faded, or deteriorated. The canvases used were prepared and primed in the back streets using plastic emulsion paints (distemper) instead of professional gesso, which tends to crack, chip off or peel off applied paint over time. This is visible in most paintings made circa 1940-80 and now coming up for sale in the market. The brilliance of the pigments and paints with no visible weathering or aging is an indication that the work just came out of the factory.

When acquiring works of living artists directly from the artists, it is always a good practice to take a picture of the work with the artist and keep that in your archives as a solid provenance and proof of authenticity, although photoshop can be used to create such proofs as well. Any other documentation such as a sales receipt or an exhibition catalogue in which the art was show must be safely stored as they add to the provenance.

There is hope for collectors as innovative developments in Blockchain technology is creating a new art economy that offers unprecedented authentication, provenance tracking, and collections management for art collectors. Through this, one can trace the history and provenance of a work’s ownership back to the original artist or owner through a secure, aggregated record of provenance. Authentication of art is facilitated by registering or confirming an artwork’s unique identity with an adhesive, tamper-evident, non-fungible token (NFT) enabled Certificate of Authenticity that timestamps and writes its data to a secure, blockchain-powered database.

In the end, the law of the land must provide fair justice and hold people responsible for cheating and fraud. The practice of making fakes is a crime and classified as art fraud, which is a broad term that can include forged signatures of artists and the sale of counterfeit art online. Pakistan’s Copyright Ordinance of 1962, section 56 could apply and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) Act of 1974 under which the owner of the copyright can file a suit for infringement of copyright or make a formal complaint to the FIA for an offense thereunder. Ironically and no surprise, upon checking with a law firm in Pakistan, it was confirmed that there are no such cases either registered or presented in the court of law for art copyright infringement or art fraud in the country.

Endnotes

  1. Newsweek Magazine article titled “After Drugs and Guns, Art Theft is the Biggest Criminal Enterprise in the World” by Kris Hollington, dated July 22, 2014
  2. Plaintiff Magazine article titled “Taking on art fraud” by Anayat Durrani, January 2011
  3. Christie’s South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Autction, September 23, 2020, Lot 545, Sale 19015, New York
  4. Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art Auction, Lot 102, March 16, 2021, New York
  5. ArtNet News article titled “Over 50% of art is fake”, October 13, 2014 quotes Yaan Walther, Head of Switzerland’s Fine Art Expert Institute (FAEI)
  6. Forbes Magazine article titled “Saudi Crown Prince MBS Pressed The Louvre To Lie About His Fake Leonardo Da Vinci, Per New Documentary”, by Suzanne Rowan Kelleher on April 9, 2021
  7. https://www.theweek.co.uk/news/world-news/europe/952492/saudi-crown-prince-lobbied-france-to-authenticate-fake-lost-da-vinci
  8. The Week, article titled “Saudi crown prince ‘lobbied France to authenticate fake da Vinci’, by Joe Evans, April 12, 2021

Ali Adil Khan is an art critic, curator, writer and collector. He has organized and curated numerous exhibitions in Canada and abroad, served as an advisor to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Aga Khan Museum, Ontario Arts Council, Canadian Community Arts Initiative and the Art Gallery of Mississauga in Canada. He is the founder and director of SAGA Foundation and the South Asian Gallery of Art (SAGA) and proud supporter of Karachi Biennale 2022. He received his education and engineering degree in Karachi, and now lives and works in Toronto, Canada.

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