Connoisseur vs. crook
Kerala might not have something as valuable as Nataraja’s Bronze or the Peacock Throne, but it does have a good number of interesting antiques. The problem is that very few of these antiques are actually for sale and even fewer are the people who can spot a fake. But with the wealthy and status conscious’s desire for “heritage”, there is a big market for what is old, or at least what looks like it. Enter the likes of Monson Mavunkal.
“We have a lot of woodcarvers, carvings and furniture in Kerala. You have wooden and iron locks. And there are bronze or brass utensils that have been passed down from generation to generation. Old tharavadus and palaces have wooden furniture from antiquity – you even have government guesthouses that have almirahs that are 100 to 150 years old. Then there are paintings, including that of Raja Ravi Varma, and coins, ”explains S Hemachandran, former director of the Kerala State Department of Architecture.
As to the number of antiques in Kerala, the answer is difficult as there are a number of unrecorded pieces in the collection of individuals. Hemachandran puts the number of recorded parts between 10,000 and 20,000 but the figure is dynamic, as some have been transferred to other places while new ones are added periodically. While crooks quote astronomical sums for questionable items in their possession, actual value is another story. An expert said that Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings are worth Rs 1 crore or more. Terracotta items, on the other hand, are quite cheap, according to another expert. “Very rarely are pieces such as terracotta objects bought for their age. And surprisingly, these are inexpensive, ”says Deepak Natesan, managing director of Natesan’s Antiqarts, which is Kerala’s oldest licensed antique dealer, with the company originally founded in 1930. As the sale prices are held secrets from both sellers and buyers make it impossible to assess the antiques market in Kerala, adds Natesan.
According to Natesan, the antiquities of Kerala became famous in the Western world thanks to the work of three scholars: Stella Kramrisch, Douglas Barrett and Prince Aschwin Lippe. “Today Kerala is on the world art map because of them,” he says. With a better understanding of Kerala antiquities in the West, demand from foreign museums has been strong, resulting in artifacts being smuggled out of the country, particularly into the United States. Then came the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act 1972, which insisted on the registration of antiques. “Smuggling was rampant until the 1980s and declined when registration was made compulsory. Now, if an antique coin lands at an airport, it could be seized by the district collector, ”says Hemachandran.
While buyers in Mumbai or Delhi are looking for Kerala originals, Kerala had virtually no collectors locally. “I could only tell about three or four serious buyers in Kerala. Kerala has a lot of wealth, but you can’t correlate wealth with interest in antiques. The rich here build lavish homes or buy a Bentley or Rolls Royce, but rarely buy antiques, ”says Natesan. According to him, there is a lack of awareness among the Malayalis about antiquities. “We have some very nice museums in Thrissur and Thiruvananthapuram and if people had visited these places they would not have been deceived by crooks,” he said, referring to the recent controversy involving Monson Mavunkal claiming a wooden stick. like that of Moses.
Even for an experienced museum owner, sometimes it is very difficult to identify a fake. “They [swindlers] make new furniture look like old furniture. There are artificial diamonds that look original, ”says Betty Karunakaran, owner of the Revi Karunakaran Memorial Museum in Alappuzha, the largest private museum in Kerala, the third phase of which was inaugurated by the former Sri President. Lankan Chandrika Kumaratunga six years ago. Karunakaran has one, but cardinal, advice to the novice who embarks on the purchase of antiques: “Buy only from genuine sources”.
Mr. G. Sasibhooshan, Kerala’s premier antiques documentation officer, provides insight into the environment that facilitated the scammer’s job. “Kerala has a lot of Roman coins available. In 1945, the people of Kadamath in Lakshadweep discovered a horde of more than 10,000 pieces. Likewise in Valluvally, a lady obtained a collection of 2,000 Roman gold coins in perfect condition, but the government was only able to seize 250 of them. In both cases, individuals obtained some of the coins. With this background of Roman coins circulating in private hands, it has become easy for crooks to convince the gullible that theirs is also original, ”he explains.
Currently, Kerala antiques buyers are not in Kerala or abroad, but in places like Mumbai or Delhi. And what is being traded is in very low volume. “Ninety-five percent of what is sold as antiques in Kerala is actually handicrafts and artefacts. Then there are pillars or doors of heritage buildings. The number of genuine antique pieces is very small, ”says Sunny L Malayil, senior partner, Crafters, an antique store in Mattancherry. Ten years ago when GVK completed the new terminal at Mumbai airport, they also bought antiques in Kerala. “Between the seven or eight licensed antique dealers, including us, we were able to provide them with 20 to 25 antique pieces,” says Malayil.
Meanwhile, unscrupulous sellers defraud unsuspecting buyers. When contacted, a carpenter specializing in antique furniture repair confessed to what he had done in the past for an antique store owner: other factors, he would gain the appearance of an antique. To give the antique look to brass products, chemicals were used, ”he says. Experts confirm this is rampant in Kerala.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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