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Cover Story

The Good, the Bad and the Fake

Mustafa Zaman

In the last couple of decades or so the art scene of Dhaka has gone through a sea change. More art works are changing hands than ever. The surge in sale has definitely injected confidence and enthusiasm in both the artists and the art dealers. However, one alarming trend of the current art market is that the prevalence of fakes is on the rise. Recent discoveries have put a dent on the widely held notion that it is mostly the deceased masters of the country whose works are being forged. But the truth is that the forgers are not even sparing the artists who enjoy a steady sale. SWM unravels the stories behind the recent discoveries of forgeries and asks the artists to find a way to combat this scourge.

When Elthem B Kabir, an art collector and the chairman of the Society for Art Promotion of Bangladesh, first heard of a couple of paintings by Mohammad Kibria being offered for sale he had no reason to suspect that the works might be of spurious origin. When a certain broker broke the news to him, he could not even speculate that he was to encounter fakes. It was in the month of February, 2005 that the man in possession of Kibria's paintings approached him. "When he did actually come to my office with the paintings I was first astonished by their number. There were eight of Kibria's work, and all of them looked spurious to me," remembers Kabir. He arranged for his well-wishers to take a look at the paintings and they too were unanimous on the fact that the paintings were not done by Kibria, an avant-gardists who is known for spearheading the abstract movement in the 1960s. The seller's claim could not mislead Kabir, who is a collector with an eye for the extraordinary. However, to clear all vestiges of doubt, Kabir took the paintings to the artist to whom they were being attributed. "When Kibria saw them he immediately dismissed them as fakes," recalls Kabir.

The story did not end there. "It should've ended there, as we vehemently remonstrated the man who wanted to sell the fakes. We told him if he carried on dealing in fakes we would take legal actions," recalls Kabir.

But strong words did not prove to be a strong enough deterrent. One of the paintings from this batch that Kibria himself had declared as fakes ended up in the wall of a renowned gallery called Tivoly. "I was doing my rounds in the Gulshan-2 gallery district when I spotted one of the fakes that had been brought to me for sale. I asked the gallery people to bring it down, and they did. They themselves did not know that it was a fake," assures Kabir who believes that the incidents of fakes and forgeries are on the rise.

"Works on paper by the late masters like Zainul Abedin, Kamrul Hasan and SM Sultan have flooded the market and most of them are fakes. The forgers have their own way of making the painting look old. What they do is keep the piece of paper on which they would paint underneath a pile of rice for three or four months, and the paper achieves that old look," says Kabir. As a collector he feels confident with works on oil. "I would readily recognise a fake if it is done with oil paint. As for works on paper it is becoming more and more difficult to sort out the original ones from the fakes," says Kabir.

It is true that with work on paper, forgers and frauds are having a field day in Bangladesh, where the art market is thriving as the nuveaux riche are willing to invest in art. However, for all types of buyers, those with a long history of acquiring art works and those with the new-found enthusiasm for paintings, the market is like a maze. Not that there are fakes everywhere one looks, but experts feel that the number of works available in the market by the deceased masters like Zainul Abedin, Kamrul Hasan and SM Sultan seem formidably high. "I'm astonished that there are so many works available by Zainul Abedin and SM Sultan at present. I find it hard to believe that they painted so many pieces," says Hashem Khan, one of the second-generation artists of Bangladesh.

There are two kinds of fakes available in the market, one is in the form of the forgeries of renowned or less known pieces, and the other is the attempts that tend to mimic the style of a particular artist rather than making a copy of an already existing original. With both cases it is the unfamiliarity with the oeuvre of a particular artist that gets in the way of a buyer. Perhaps the presence of a third party in the form of an expert or an agent might have helped the buyers to get their hands on the original art works. Of course, the presence of such a third party only exists in an ideal situation. Here in Bangladesh, there is no such luck for the buyers, and often they are being cheated.

The touch of genius: Harrowing, a famous watercolour by Zainul Abedin

Recognising a fake needs an educated pair of eyes. However, one who has some authority over the history of Bangladesh's art, one who recognises the styles of the artists can also be hard put while vis-à-vis a fake painting if it is done with care. But in Dhaka even the shoddy imitations are finding eager buyers.

In the first week of July, Rafiqun Nabi found out that a certain forger had copied one of his early works and produced another in the vein of his watercolour landscapes. "They (forgers) have become so rampant in their practice that they are now producing works of artists who are still alive and who enjoy a regular sale. One particular work that the forger copied had been published by the Shilpakala Academy in one of their folders. And the other that is a landscape showing a line of palm trees, simply an imitation of my style; it is a sloppily done work. The signatures in both the paintings are similar but they readily give away the fact that they are fakes," Nabi recounts his encounter with the two fake paintings discovered from Haque Gallery at Gulshan-2.

The fakes were discovered when they were being sold off to a customer. They could not escape the keen eyes of a student of Nabi, who has the habit of doing the rounds in the galleries across Dhaka. It is he who challenged the gallery owners and asked them to take the controversial works to the artist who created them. Once they were brought over to Nabi's place, the artist himself declared that the works were fakes.

Palash, the director of Haque Gallery claimed that they acquired them from another gallery called Chitrayon, which is situated in Uttara. Chitrayon's owner Abdur Rahim Bulbul said he bought them from a private collector who is a computer engineer named Rafiqul Islam Tuhin. Tuhin could not be contacted as the mobile phone he uses proved to be continuously out of reach. Bulbul said if he knew that the paintings were fakes he wouldn't have bought them in the first place.

FAKES GALORE: Few examples from the 2002 Shilpangan exhibitions which many agree was an occasion to pass a formidable number of fakes as original. The paintings came from the collection of the artist's daughter

"Once I found out, I myself have arranged for the news to be published in the paper. No one did that. There are galleries who had hung fakes in their exhibitions, but now it seems that my gallery is being branded as the source of fakes. Some people are doing it out of professional jealousy," says Bulbul.

Following the discovery of two fake paintings attributed to Nabi, Bulbul approached the man from whom he acquired the paintings. "He was furious and he threatened me over the phone. He even sent a few henchmen to teach me a lesson. I was manhandled by them," says Bulbul who filed a general dairy with the Uttara police station stating the above. The daily Jugantar carried the story of the fake paintings as well as the predicament of Bulbul on June 15.

Interestingly, a few weeks before the discovery of the two Nabi watercolours, Chitrayon was accused of displaying a pastel work that they attributed to Shafiuddin Ahmed. The painting came from the same source. "I borrowed it from Tuhin for a show that I arranged," says Bulbul.

Discoveries of fakes do not usually lead us back to the forger. The persons whose

One of Kamrul's original

handiworks are fakes surely posses skills both in painting and in eluding the art world giants who enjoy a steady sale. Nabi feels that it is time to take some affirmative actions against these people. "It seems that the one who produced the fakes in my case had the ability to produce the semblance of watercolour wash. He must've gone through academic training, otherwise he could not have produced such fakes," says Nabi. Although he talks of taking measures, he is also worried about the fact that if the artist is somebody from our community it would certainly put a blotch on the reputation of the artists as whole.

"We have a thriving art market in Bangladesh. And a section of people is trying to undo what we have achieved in the last twenty years," says Hashem Khan, who fears that the presence of fakes may shoo away a lot of potential buyers from the art market.

The prevalence of fake paintings has been on the rise. In fact as the price of art works skyrocketed in the 1990s, the chance of encountering fakes has also gone up. "In the beginning it was the works of three pioneers -- Zainul Abedin, Kamrul Hasan and SM Sultan, whose works were being forged. I remember when a prestigious gallery like Shilpangan put up show of Kamrul Hasan's works in 2002, there were a plethora of works by the master that looked like second rate art. It was Qayyum Chowdhury who first pointed out that most of the works were sloppily done imitations," recalls Hashem Khan who is worried that no one is taking any step to check this flooding of the market by fake paintings. In that notorious show of Kamrul's work most of the paintings were brought from the collection of the deceased artist's own daughter. So, no one could really come up with the proof that they were not the works of the late master. The only sign of spuriousness was that most of them looked shoddy.

(Top) One of the famine sketches in the collection of the Bengal Foundation, which looks like a copy of the one (Bottom) that has been reproduced several times as an original of Zainul

Shilpangan's exhibition was not the first occasion to blatantly put on display works of spurious origin of a renowned artist. In the absence of experts the Dhaka art scene is gradually being diluted by forgeries and fakes. In an exhibition titled "Works of Three Bengali Pioneers" in 2002 the Bengal Gallery of Fine Arts produced a famine sketch of Zaninul that many suspected did not display the magical mastery over the human form, which was the hallmark of the master.

How did all these forgeries and fakes end up in major galleries of Dhaka? Those who planned to infiltrate the Dhaka art scene with fakes had been active even before the major galleries fell for such works. "In the year 1999 or 2000, I was summoned by the executive director of the National Museum. Qayyum Chowdhury, Rafiqun Nabi and Abdur Razzaq were also there. We were to authenticate a bulk of works by SM Sultan that the museum was about to buy for its permanent collection. To our astonishment we found that most of the sketches by Sultan were fakes," recalls Khan. Not a single painting was bought by the National Museum, as there were doubts about their authenticity.

Md Muniruzzaman, the executive director of the Gallery Chitrak, also have similar stories to tell about a bulk of works by Zainul that were brought from across the border. "It was most probably in 1996 that a woman named Dipaly Bhattyacharya, an artist based in Kolkata, came to Dhaka with a consignment of works by Zainul. Though she claimed that the works were obtained from a reliable source, most of the paintings looked spurious," recalls Muniruzzaman, who was then the gallery executive of Shilpangan.

The works were shown to artists who as students of Zainul grew up familiarising

TOUGH ACT TO FOLLOW: The spontaneous brush strokes and lines of Kamrul are the signatures that are difficult to replicate

themselves with their teacher's techniques. They were unanimous that the works were fakes. Although Shilpangan rejected the bulk of paintings brought by the Indian artist Dipaly, later, as Muniruzzaman claims, some of the works resurfaced in the grand solo show of Zainul in 2004, organised by Bengal Gallery with collaboration of Shilpakala Acedemy, National Museum and the Institute of Fine Arts.

Hashem Khan also knows of an incident when the former director general of the National Museum, Shamsuzzaman Khan, rejected a number of works by Zainul on the account that the source of origin was doubtful. "Shamsuzzaman was not ready to buy the works about which there was little information," recalls Hashem Khan, who believes that in the grand show of Zainul organised by Bengal Gallery a number of fakes of Zainul were put on display.

It is a fact that there are some works that Zainul left behind in Kolkata before setting off to Dhaka in 1947. "It was in 1973 that I accompanied Zainul Abedin to Kolkata on the occasion of a show titled contemporary arts of Bangladesh. One day, he asked me to tag along as he set out on a mission to retrieve the two sketchbooks that he had left behind, -- one was a pencil sketchbook and the other was a watercolour study book. We went from one place to another, but Zainul's sketchbooks could not be found with the people Zainul had entrusted them with," recalls Khan. He believes that it is on the basis of this information - that Zainul had left a bulk of works in Kolkata before finally leaving for Dhaka, a certain quarter is producing fakes that are evidently no match for Zainul's mastery over human forms and contour line. Khan is not only worried that "many of the fakes of Zainul are coming from across the border" but also that they are finding buyers in Bangladesh.

Shahabuddin's technique may seem nonreplicable, but there are works in the market that are falsely being attributed to this living legend

When the buyers are being easily fooled the incidents of dealing in fakes is bound to go up. And Kolkata is not the only source of fakes of the master painter. The desperation to find original works of Zainul has reached such heights that one of Monirul Islam's study work, which was done in the vein of Zainul was recently put on sale in one of the oldest gallery of Dhaka -- namely Saju Art Gallery. "It was a work that Monirul did when he and I went on a tour to Rangamati back in 1963. I remember the sketch vividly as Monirul declared before setting out to produce the watercolour landscape that he would do it in the vein of Zainul," recounts Khan who confronted the gallery owner and asked him to remove it from the exhibition of which it was one of the major attractions. Luckily, Monirul Islam came to Dhaka on a visit, and recognised his own work and asked the gallery authority to remove the picture from their display. According to Islam, the lower

part of the painting had been shorn off to do away with the signature of the artist and a fake signature of Zainul was added to give credence to the fact that it was a Zainul piece.

"The work of Monirul Islam that has been transformed into a Zainul piece came from the artist's family collection," testifies artist Nisar Hossain, who feels that it is the lack of awareness among buyers that is contributing to the thriving business in fake art. "With unaccounted for money there would only be the possibility of getting spurious art work, says Hossain.

It is true that there has been a rise in the number of buyers who are willing to get their hands on anything that bears the sign of the major painters of Bangladesh. They simply cannot differentiate between a masterpiece and a poorly done sketch. "For many buyers the equation boils down to numbers. I've seen collectors who are boasting that they have so and so number of Zainul or Kamrul. It should've been otherwise; a collector could boast of how many good works of a particular painter he has in collection. In that way quality would have been the main concern of a buyer," says Hossain. "There are buyers who haven't had the chance to look at five to six paintings displayed in a row, of a certain painter, but he is eager to lay his hands on any work by a famous name," says Muniruzzaman.

Going for a signature rather than buying art works that one perceives as the representative of the mastery of a certain artist, has left its odd mark on Dkaka's art-

SM Sultan's forgeries have flooded the market; this is one example of how shoddy an imitation can get

collecting scene. In many an exhibition shoddy works of the late masters are being displayed. "If you differentiate between the good and the shoddy works of the major painters of Bangladesh, you can also start to realise the difference between a genuine piece and a spurious one," believes Nisar Hossain. It is evident that in Bangladesh the incident of renowned masterpieces being copied is not as high as that of works produced in imitation of the style of a particular artist. As most fake arts are works done in the vein of an artist, they can be called fakes but not forgeries.

In the absence of any formal procedure of authentication, what are the steps that may finally put the buyers on alert? What are the options that might be explored to separate the authentic from the fake? Nisar Hossain had a proposal way back in the late 1998. "What I proposed is a formation of a committee which will be accountable for the works of the dead as well as the living artists. There should be a survey of all the pictures, who owns what and where did they obtain it from, all the information must be compiled by an institution. I thought the National Museum would have been the likely organisation that had the logistics to do this. At present, the Bengal Gallery has the capability to take on this task," says Hossain, who adds that the committee could issue certificate for each of the art works.

"There can be three categories of art works. The first being the genuine one, about which no one belonging to the committee would raise any objection; the second being the one about which committee members are not unanimous; and the third category art work would be the one that had been unanimously rejected by the committee," Hossain clarifies. According to what Hossain proposed, each artwork would carry a certificate with it, and if a work changed hands it must accompany a certificate of that resale. "All these must be overseen and regulated by the National Museum," Hossain points out.

Hashem Khan, Rafiqun Nabi and many other artists, who believe that there are artists involved in this ring of forgers and producers of fake art works, feel that to check the flooding of the market with spurious art there is no alternative to introducing certificates.

Four of Zainul Abedin's works from the bulk that Dipaly Bhattyacharya brought from Kolkata in 1996. Dipaly's potential buyer -- the Shilpangan Gallery dismissed them as fakes

"We are thinking seriously of sitting with the senior artists whose works are being copied to work out a way to combat such deplorable acts," declares Nabi.

The concept of fake art works is relatively new in Bangladesh. Collectors in Europe and America, where there are regulatory bodies and experts to authenticate a piece of art and to denounce a fake, have been dealing with forgeries for centuries. Since it is impossible to put a stop to the act of producing fakes what is needed is an organised effort to sort out the authentic pieces from the fakes. Many blame the galleries for being involved in underhanded dealings. Many feel that it is the brokers who are dealing in paintings skirting round the usual practice of selling art through the galleries. However, the blame game is not helping anyone, as it is a fact that there are fakes that are changing hands in the market. Experts in the art world must come forward and put a stop to this.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2006