Raphael Sanzio, “The School of Athens”, 1509 and 1511. Picture Courtesy : MyModernMet
Fakes and forgeries are exciting mysteries of the art world – they carry the stories of artists, their oeuvre of work, their favorite colours , their iconic styles, and their changing sensibilities while summing up their prolific career that in the market fetches their works at exorbitant prices.
In India, gallerists have spoken out about the need for a transparent and well-equipped system of authentication. While they themselves ensure due diligence, it’s usually first-time buyers that are left with a sour taste in their mouths.
How simple is it to be an art-lawyer? Many would agree that it takes a detective to uncover specks of artificially-aged paint, date the availability of a particular colour, and correctly identify fake signatures.
Art Fervour spoke to India’s first art lawyer, Debottam Bose Esq, who boasts a highly-sought-after list of clients consisting of prominent art collectors, museums, institutions and students ahead of the #AFWeekender2021!, 2021’s first online festival.
This festival of speaker sessions and workshops, held on the 5th – 6th of February, entirely on zoom, will take you through the ins and outs of fakes and forgeries, the journey of a piece of art, conservation and heritage, and to contemporary mediums like street art, while also including a zine workshop and an interactive show-and-tell. The festival highlights the various disciplines across the arts, bringing in design, public art, art conservation, digital platforms and Artificial Intelligence.
A project finance lawyer by training, Debottam Bose, Esq blends his love and passion for art with his strategic focus on law. Bose studied art history during his time at the School of Oriental & African Studies (SOAS) and went on to work with international law firms like Skadden, Arps, Slate Meagher & Flom LLP ( London) and White & Case LLP. His focus on international art led to the inception of a niche consultancy that included finance and philanthropy, and now it brought him the reigning title of India’s first-art lawyer.
Narrating stories of authenticating the paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, anecdotes from his mentors, and advice to budding art lovers alike, a peek into the life of an art lawyer would be one we guarantee you shouldn’t miss! Catch a glimpse of the questions and conversations as we gear up for “From the Art of Law to the Law of Arts”, on the 5th of February at 11 am. Register for your ticket here.
AF : As the first art lawyer in India, when did you realize the need for this specialized field in our country?
DB : I have always been passionate about travelling, immersing myself in world and local culture. I was lucky to study international law in Strasbourg and Florence, and art history in London. It was in Florence where I came across international jurists like Antonio Cassese. I used to love visiting the Uffizi gallery, the world-famous art museum and later in New York City, I would interact with world-renowned lawyers who would specialise in international art law. When I returned to India as a budding lawyer, as a passion project, I was lucky enough to assist my friend’s father. He was building up his mammoth art collection. I would travel for him to meet artists, commission art works, and make sure the artists would always get paid promptly, keeping two things in mind: confidentiality and full disclosure. That’s when I started thinking more seriously about starting a practice of art law in India and focusing on both domestic and international transactions for art purchases, sales, and providing independent advice on both the commercial and legal side for the various stakeholders in the art world, from artists, collectors, museums, foundations, and art dealers, along with art advisors and auction houses.
AF : Can you tell our readers what it means to be an art lawyer and attorney in India? And when does your role begin, is it after a purchase or acquirement is made?
DB : In the 1960s & 1970s, in the US especially, the craze was to become an entertainment lawyer. Move to LA, hang out in Hollywood with the celebrities – my friend and mentor, Eric Kaufman, a leading art lawyer based in NYC would recount – but past the glamour, you have to be first a lawyer and a very good one at it. So I would start on the same note, first of all one has to practice as a lawyer and gain a diverse amount of experience. This serves as a really good foundation since as an art lawyer what is important is to understand the dynamic, the relationship, resolve disputes, maintain relationships; it’s not about only contracts and enforcement and the importance of no conflicts, confidentiality and the ability to win clients over and close deals.
I would get involved in all stages, so if a client is looking to buy a work of art or sell an art work, I would give her strategic advice as to what their best options would be. Another friend and mentor, whom I never got a chance to work with but he would work with an incredible list of HNI private clients, said that essentially an art lawyer is a private client lawyer and would get involved in various junctions. He used to say my job is to build bridges and add value to the relationship. Along with this, much of what I do is very much investigative in nature, to fact find and, this bit is really important, disclose material information to the client. That’s the key.
AF : With instances of sellers baking their paintings to make them appear aged, or commissioning artists to imitate the styles of prominent artists, what has been the most creative or ingenious experience you’ve come across while working to identify a fake or forged artwork?
DB : Fakes and forged works of art are the big basket case in the world of art law, especially when I assist in the buying or selling of paintings, sculptures, etc along with warning against stolen works of art. There are numerous examples of incredible deceptions.
I was assisting a client with a prized Amrita Sher-Gil oil on canvas painting which was for sale in India. My client, who is also based in India, absolutely loved the work. It was signed off as being authentic by a well-known artist and relative of Sher-Gil. All the paperwork was in order. I flew in to see the work and to see the original documents and inspect them. Part of what an art lawyer does is very much investigative in nature. I must see and touch the works of art. I was taken to the home of a well-known artist, who had sadly passed away; his widow was brought in a wheelchair, the painting was there along with all the original documents laid out on the table. I inspected them and when I was about to ask the widow the question about when and how did her late husband acquire the Sher-Gil, I was given a letter in the late artist’s letterhead which detailed that the painting had been in the late artist’s collection. This was an important letter but, as an art lawyer, part of my job was to validate this letter and if it was actually written by the late artist. My research and investigation concluded that the letter was indeed forged: the painting did not actually belong to the late artist, it was what we call an orphan work, a stolen work, where all the paper works are forged and well-known, unsuspecting families are found to sell off to unsuspecting buyers at a premium price. A genuine work, which has no provenance trail, has a defective title in the world of art law and if it’s a stolen work, then any unsuspecting buyers takes the title risk and there is no defence to state that she was not aware. Hence the investigation to establish both title and authenticity are important.
Another example would be: I had to travel to Germany, Hamburg, to investigate and view a Leonardo da Vinci painting. You can imagine, I was so excited and I had my team with me. We met the seller’s side, including the agents, bankers and a very old man who had the Power of Attorney. Dossiers and documents, and numerous authenticity affidavits were shared. Whenever I would request to view the painting, there would be a delay. This was an alarm bell. Then we were informed that the seller’s side wanted a deposit and the painting was not in Hamburg but in Madrid. This is where I took the decision that this deal was not going to happen and I did not want my client to pay the deposit, and we aborted the deal. Later, I was informed that the work was a fake and an entrapment to secure deposit money from unsuspecting buyers.
AF : As an art lawyer dealing with fakes and forgeries, do you find yourself finding flaws in a painting as a natural habit? Are you able to enjoy a visit to the museum without feeling the urge to solve a case?
DB : Well, my work is investigative in nature and I do make it a point to always see and admire the works of art, but the flaws and defects always lie in the paperwork unless the works are really a bad copy or glaringly badly forged. Museums are amazing and I am also known to take my students on class visits, but what I love is visiting art fairs – that’s where the whole experience of art and handling and interacting with objects and the various people, from artists, collectors, dealers, art historians, and curators, comes alive.
AF : What would be the one line of advice you would give to young lawyers, or those interested in the arts, who want to follow in your footsteps? Apart from tuning in to your session at the #AFWeekender2021, of course!
DB: Invest the time with artists, your senior lawyers, art collectors and enthusiasts. Travel, visit museums and art fairs locally and, thanks to the pandemic, virtually all over the world now.
Yes, do tune in! Looking forward. Thank you!