For 18 years, Pordenone Montanari created a houseful of art in the Italian countryside. And it could all have gone to dust, if not for an Indian businessman and a Dubai executive.
In old Italian home, new owner finds a secret master
Our culture is hungry for stories of buried treasure. The hunt never ends for the lost archive, the missing masterpiece. When something of startling value is brought blinking into the light after many years, it answers our romantic desire for discovery.
Not that it happens often. Great works of art on the whole don't just pop up. It's not so much that no one ever finds them. It's more that in a globalised economy, a world in which technology has accessed all areas, there are few secrets.
Something remarkable is unfolding in Italy. In the north-eastern province of Piedmont, an entire archive has been disinterred. Hundreds of paintings and sculptures have suddenly emerged, the creation of a reclusive artist. The extraordinary thing is their discovery happened by accident. But for the purest luck, the artist in question might have gone to his grave in complete obscurity. Thanks to the zeal of a man brought up in a distant culture and who is happy to confess he is no connoisseur, this has been prevented.
It happened like this:
In the early 1990s an Indian businessman, Raja Khara, met and married an Italian woman and made the countryside of Biella his adoptive home. For 15 years he drove to and from home past a property that never failed to catch the eye. Rising imposingly over three storeys, half-shrouded by pines, it betrayed no sign of occupancy. Indeed the local commune had no record that anyone lived there permanently.
"We always thought that the property was owned by a family from Milan or Florence," says Khara. "It looked taken care of, but we never saw any sign of life. And one day there was a 'for sale' sign that had been put up apparently just that day."
Khara was on the way to the supermarket with his father-in-law. He was meant to be shopping for groceries. He got out of his car and approached an old woman he had never seen before, and made an appointment to view for the next day, a Sunday. He returned with his wife, and together they were staggered by what they found. It wasn't just the house itself, though that alone took their breath away.
"The structure was very intriguing," he recalls. "Once inside, it was much more so. It was only after I entered the house that I knew that an artist lived there."
The evidence? All over the house the walls were covered with paintings. In places it was four metres from floor to ceiling: there was a lot of art. Some of it hung freely on canvases; elsewhere wall space had been frescoed. In one alcove room daubed figures crowded the cornices. And then there was the garden, a typically formal creation with intricate patterns of boxed hedges, lush with figurines sculpted in wood and stone.
"I felt that the art was of a particular level," says Khara, "and there had been absolutely no exposure of this artist that I was aware of."
That was true.
Pordenone Montanari, now in his 70s, had been exhibited only once in his long life. That had been 25 years earlier, when the entire show was bought by three Italian banks. One of those banks still hangs his paintings in its headquarters near La Scala in Milan. But Khara gleaned that the artist had felt sullied by naked commerce, and had decided to withdraw.
It is easy to hide in Biella, where the land twists and rolls between sea and alp. But Montanari withdrew not only to the countryside, but also behind the high facade of his rural eyrie and, for 18 years, proceeded to create in solitary confinement. The works he produced in his hermetic retreat have trace elements of Picasso, Chagall, Matisse and perhaps Bacon.
Once he'd acquired the house - which had become too big for a couple in their 70s, such as Montanari and his wife - Khara was sufficiently enthused to start talking to Montanari about his legacy. It was slow going. Montanari had no interest in social graces.
"At the end of my first meeting he said I had wasted two hours of his time when he could have been working, and then walked away," Khara says. "This was the person whose home I was buying.
"But by the same token he is a man with tremendous integrity."
Montanari seemed entirely uninterested in compromise. Khara's notaio - the legal representative who oversaw the transaction - described the artist and his wife as surreale. His first language being English, Khara thought the Italian word referred to surly behaviour, until his wife explained that it simply meant that they just do things differently.
Khara offered to help secure a commercial future for the reservoir of works that Montanari would otherwise need to take to a much smaller house.
"I explained to him that if something was not done in a professional and organised fashion, most probably he would die and nobody would know about him," he says.
The reply shows some measure of the man he was dealing with. Montanari was keen on the idea, but on one condition: Khara had to give up all his other business involvements and concentrate on this one commitment.
"I can say it in Italian. Siamo sposati. We're married. Basta. That was the discussion and I had to make the decision. It was a tremendous risk," Khara says.
But the temptation was too great, the opportunity too good to miss. Khara took soundings from friends and contacts (including one friend who is a director at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago) about how to proceed - whether to embark on what he calls "a mom and pop operation" in which he would do almost everything on his own, or whether to take a more professional route.
"As an individual I knew I had a 100 per cent chance of success," he says. "But it could take a considerable amount of time and expense. I decided to take the professional route."
In effect, that meant attempting to persuade potential investors to come in with him on a fund and buy up much of the Montanari archive. He made enquiries here and there, including with a businessman he met, Arun Rangachari, the chairman of a Dubai-based private investment equity company called DAR Capital.
Rangachari remembers the first time Khara bent his ear.
"I met him in a friend's office," Rangachari says. "He spoke about this Italian artist he'd just met. I listened very politely and I forgot about it the next day." A few months later they had a more formal meeting - "and I realised the extent of what he had."
Like Khara's, Rangachari's curiosity was piqued. His business dealings thus far had been in technology, media and entertainment. His company owns the satellite technology that beams the Indian Premier League's T20 cricket games live into 2,000 Indian cinemas. Recently the company branched out into investing in agriculture.
Although he goes to galleries, Rangachari didn't know the art market, so he asked around.
"I heard from some experts, people who used to work for Sotheby's and Christie's at very senior levels," he says. "I had a few very influential friends who are big-time collectors. When I showed them some of the works, everyone was unanimous on the quality. I took a decision almost instantaneously. I thought I would like to own one and that's exactly how it began."
Rangachari's hunch gained a tremendous boost when an Italian neighbour of his, a leading interior decorator in Dubai, happened to see photographs of Montanari's work when she and her husband came round for a drink.
"She just rhapsodised, 'Who is this genius? I don't know the work.' Her husband said, 'Can I invest in your fund immediately?'" In fact the majority of the fund is owned by DAR Capital, but other investors came in on the strength of a single phone call.
With the fund, 275 works by Montanari were purchased, including paintings, sculptures, drawings and notebooks. The plan is to create a hunger for his work by exhibiting pieces in Italy and London, and only then release them slowly onto the market. Recently a selection of works was unveiled at the Italian Cultural Institute in London.
"Montanari is a truly exciting new Italian discovery," says Dr Rossana Pittelli of the institute.
The distinguished art critic Edward Lucie-Smith is also among Montanari's fans.
"This is a totally different voice," he says. "Montanari is unique. This blows apart the conventional story of the development of Italian post-war art."
How valuable is the archive? That remains to be seen, but markets are there to be worked and the auction rooms will be hearing a lot more of Montanari in the coming years. That, anyway, is the conviction of the Indians who have decided to buy up the artist's entire life.
One question remains. According to Khara, Montanari seems indifferent to the success or failure of the outcome. So why submit himself to the public scrutiny that he has so assiduously shunned for decades? And why put his fate in the hands of a foreigner who freely admits, "No artist has ever excited me"?
The answer, it turns out, goes back to before his birth, and emerged over a long series of conversations between the artist and his agent.
"When his mother was pregnant with him," says Khara, "she had been told by an astrologer in Pordenone, where he was born, that this child would be very famous one day. But the person that makes this child famous will be from a foreign land."