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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Air India's massive art collection comes under scrutiny

Fate of works by famous artists in doubt because of mismanagement at state carrier

The Air India logo is seen on the facade of its office building in Mumbai. The national carrier, which the government is seeking to privatise, is under scrutiny for its handling of its massive art collection. Danish Siddiqui / Reuters
The Air India logo is seen on the facade of its office building in Mumbai. The national carrier, which the government is seeking to privatise, is under scrutiny for its handling of its massive art collection. Danish Siddiqui / Reuters

Five months ago, Jatin Das, an acclaimed Indian painter and sculptor, received an email from an art curator who wanted to authenticate an oil painting attributed to him.

Mr Das, 75, asked for more details and a photo of the work, which was up for sale on the open market. When he saw the photo, he was shocked. The painting, a large, horizontal oil named Flying Apsara, showed a mythic Hindu spirit mid-flight, and Mr Das had painted it on commission from Air India, the national carrier.

As part of the airline's extensive collection, the painting belonged to the government. And yet here it was, being offered for sale with a dubious provenance that made no mention of Air India at all.

Mr Das complained to the airline, accusing it of “indifference, negligence and theft”, and prompting an internal investigation. In July, the painting was returned to Air India, sent mysteriously from a fake address in a Delhi suburb. “It was without a frame and had been folded several times and was in a torn condition,” an official said at the time, of a work that was valued at 2.5 million rupees (Dh140,770).

On Saturday, based on its investigation, Air India filed a police complaint against Rohita Jaidka, a former executive director who had worked at the airline for more than 30 years before retiring in 2011.

Flying Apsara had been displayed in an Air India lounge at Delhi airport before being moved to the company’s offices in the city. The painting was stolen sometime between 2004 and 2009, the airline suspects.

The case of Flying Apsara reveals problems with Air India’s art collection — a victim of the larger mismanagement for which the airline is notorious. Since 1953, when the government nationalised the then 21-year-old airline, Air India has been one of the most important collectors of contemporary Indian art, sculpture, textiles and other artefacts, using the pieces to decorate the walls of its airport lounges and company offices.

The whole collection is thought to run to 7,000 items, including 4,000 paintings. No official estimate exists of the worth of the collection. But many of the artists — Mr Das himself, VS Gaitonde, Anjolie Ela Menon, MF Husain — became the leading lights of Indian art, their work exhibited and sold all over the world.

An untitled, abstract canvas by Gaitonde was sold in 2015 for 293 million rupees — a record for an Indian artist at auction.

“Decades ago, when many were still talented emerging artists, a number of our Modernist masters readily availed of Air India’s brilliant option to barter flight tickets for their artworks,” said Arvind Vijaymohan, the chief executive of Artery India, the world’s largest analysis firm for Indian art. Other artists sold their works at prices that seem low relative to their value today.

“Air India, in a visionary stance, realised that Indian culture would be most powerfully represented by the art from our country, and that these works could be displayed with pride in the airline’s growing network of offices around the world,” Mr Vijaymohan said.

But over the decades, mismanagement crept in. Records of the works purchased, and the locations of where they were displayed, started to disappear or fall apart in poor storage, Mr Vijaymohan said.

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The artists themselves have no idea what has happened to their works, and at least one other artist has discovered that one of hers is missing. A six-piece panel that Anjolie Ela Menon painted for Air India in the early 1980s used to be displayed in the residence of the airline's chairman. But a decade later she saw it had been replaced by a piece of cardboard. She complained at the time but never received an explanation.

In June, trying to work out the mystery of Flying Apsara, Mr Das asked Air India to send him high resolution images of all of his paintings — along with the title, size, year and medium of each work — for his archive.

He was told that Air India was in the midst of an audit of its collection. A spokesperson for the airline also told reporters that the exercise, scheduled to be completed in September, would be followed by the opening of a new gallery to display the full collection.

Neither the audit’s full results nor the gallery have materialised. Ajit Singh, India's aviation minister between 2011 and 2014, told India Today magazine that during his tenure the value of missing paintings was estimated to be 3 billion rupees. Media reports, citing unnamed officials, have put the figure closer to 7.5 billion rupees.

The artworks could have been misplaced or borrowed for private use, or even stolen outright and sold. Without proper documentation, there was no way to keep track.

The fate of the art collection is a piece of a larger problem that the Indian government is grappling with. In June, prime minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet approved the privatisation of Air India, which is burdened with US$8 billion (Dh29.4bn) in debt and attracts frequent criticism for the quality of its services.

The airline should prove easy to sell, said Devesh Agarwal, an aviation industry analyst. “There is no part of Air India that is not tempting to purchase.”

The airline has a large fleet of 142 planes, a network of prime overseas routes, and committed landing slots at nearly every Indian airport. Its share of the booming domestic market hovers around 13.5 per cent, and around 17 per cent for international flights.

If the airline’s art collection is sold separately, a thorough inventory and valuation is crucial, Mr Vijaymohan said.

“I’d hate to see a collection of this historic importance be diluted” and sold off piece by piece, he said. “But rather than being with the government, perhaps it’s best in private hands. What would be ideal is the sale of the larger body of the collection to a single owner, in order to keep it intact.”

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