Francis Newton Souza: Still Life
1967. Oil on board, 12 x 18 inches.
On display at Goa State Museum, Patto
November 6, 2010
In the last few years of his life, even while he still lived a fairly desperate existence financed solely by the ongoing sale of his paintings, Francis Newton Souza became aware that fakes purported to be his work had begun to proliferate in India.
At first, he had laughed off the phenomenon.
Even genuine Souza paintings weren’t particularly high-priced in the first place – right up his death less than a decade ago, anyone could walk into his New York apartment with as little as 100 or 200 dollars and emerge with a stunningly original drawing or ‘chemical’ painting on paper.
And 1000 dollars – at that time around 40,000 rupees – could get you a masterpiece from the early days in London; the same exact works on canvas and board that now sell for crores of rupees, and occasionally even millions of dollars.
But then Souza started to become aware that fakes were showing up in the “reputed” galleries of India as well, and then he found that they had begun to appear in such numbers that they outnumbered the relatively small percentage of his genuine work that was on view and on sale in India.
One day, he told me – “there are people who are writing scholarly essays on my art, and from what they are saying, I doubt they’ve seen any of my actual work at all!” It struck us both as surreal: sincere scholarship based on fakery.
Souza being Souza, he stewed about this situation for a while. Then he had a chance conversation with his old friend, Husain, who reported that he had seen several obvious fakes of Souza’s work at a a well-known gallery in Mumbai. Husain had been amazed that anyone could believe they were real.
Souza stewed further, and then composed an incredible stinker of an open letter that he addressed to a number of publications and people involved in the Indian art world (I have a copy, to be posted in this space one day).
In it, he named a long string of gallerists and art dealers (still many of the biggest names in the Indian art world) that he had determined were involved with selling fakes of his work. It was a bombshell that could have had a salutary effect on the Indian art world right at the beginning of this fakes nonsense.
But you see, Souza was always at the periphery of the Indian art world while he was still alive and inconvenient. He was shunned and maligned bythe same people who now champion his work, and the same people who now pay large sums of money for his paintings consistently ignored him. It’s mere fact that Anjolie Ela Menon and many other artists whose paintings been left far behind by Souza’s in the auction era – at that time commanded prices easily ten times higher than our man from Saligao.
And so his letter had no impact. And worse, the people named in it (once again: many of the biggest-name dealers) worked hard to rubbish Souza as a crazy old man.
A final insult, the main person Souza indicted turned around and sued the irate old man for millions in a New York court. In the end, with the help of an excellent lawyer with an India connection(who I helped organize) Souza was compelled to settle for a relatively small sum.
It still almost bankrupted him. “I’ll paint more,” he told me. But we both knew he’d been brought perilously close to the edge.
Much of this story has been told by me elsewhere. But all of those tumultuous feelings come straight back almost every time that I come across a “Souza painting” on display or especially on sale in India, circa 2010.
That’s because so very many of them – now ominously heading towards a large majority – are obvious fakes to my eye, and would be to anyone who has actually seen and paid attention to Souza’s huge body of work that spans from the 40’s through the 90’s.
But despite this truth being readily evident to me and to many others, the entire system is so complicit and corrupt, that there seems to be nothing that we can do about it. Worse, there is always a further threat of being sued for our temerity in bearing witness to the obvious truth.
In my case, I will share with you here that I feel desperate about the situation on a regular basis, and consistently deeply hurt on behalf of my friend and hero, who continues to be mistreated by the Indian art world even years after his death.
But every time I’ve even bothered to raise an objection – notably at Sotheby’s itself – the dealers have thrown out the same get-out-of-jail-free card – “we have had it authenticated.”
But by whom are these obvious fake authenticated? By the same scumbags who Souza himself named as traffickers in fakes?
After all, how many people are there in the world who bothered to seek out and view a large portion of Souza’s ouevre while it was still in his hands, and while he was still around to corroborate and confirm?
I know the answer: pretty damn few; a couple of British scholars sent by the Tate, a handful Indian and Pakistani devotees of Souza’s work who came to view works they knew they could not afford even at those paltry prices that remained through the artist’s lifetime.
None of these are on the list that the auction houses use for authentication, let alone among the utter rabble who rubber-stamp certificates for the Indian galleries.
Which brings me to just the newest, latest example of an egregious fake Souza painting being peddled by a reputable gallery. I came to see it via Goan Voice, which reprinted the image from the Hindu.
But first please take a look at the painting at the top of this page.
I have often felt deeply ashamed as a Goan that this is the only Souza painting on public display in his beloved homeland, in the State Museum at Patto thanks to a generous gift.
It’s a tiny work , and (in my opinion) very far from being in the better half of Souza’s lifetime ouevre, but as time continues to pass, I’m increasingly grateful that at least it’s genuine! See the characteristic cross-hatching, the complexity and evident genius even in this inarguably lesser work: this painting was clearly executed by Souza himself.
But then take a look at this crude monstrosity that went on display and sale at a major national gallery just a couple of weeks ago.
Look at that mouth! Can anyone imagine that Francis Newton Souza painted that outrage?!
I can attest that Souza would have been deeply offended that anyone could believe that he’d painted it, he’d have exploded in rage!
Just as he pointed out years ago, these ugly fakes are outnumbering the genuine article, and people’s opinions – even academic opinions – are increasinly based on fraudulent paintings. This was the star painting in the highest-profile recent Souza show in India! It’s a horrific state of affairs!
What can one do about it?
In the last couple of years, I’ve asked a whole range of Indian art world insiders this question – and not one has given me a satisfactory answer.
They all admit – privately – that massive fraudulence has clearly taken over the core of the Indian art markeplace, but they will then tell you outright that there is nothing that can be done about it because the nouveau riches of India (who have constituted the boom) don’t know enough about the art to know the difference. In many cases, I’ve sensed a tone of “who cares if these suckers get bilked.”
But it’s not just the buyers who’re being bilked, of course. It’s you and me, and Souza’s legacy.
November 5, 2010
November 4, 2010
November 3, 2010
November 2, 2010
Rajeshree Thakker: Lila – The Game Box
2009. Mixed media on wood, 13.5 x 13.5 x 8.5 inches
November 1, 2010
Isa Hinojosa is from Mexico City. She’s married to tambdimati’s least regular columnist, Lucano, and has two very young sons. She’s lived in India for five years. Trained as an agro-ecologist, she managed an organic farm near Pune for a while, and now works as a freelance illustrator from her home in the riverside village of Aldona. Each week, she will contribute a digital illustration to tambdimati: the Goa review.
October 31, 2010