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Air India Art Collection: Antiquities, not art, hold the key to monetary value of 'national treasure'

Experts say the massive collection worth "hundreds of crores" must remain as a separate collection in a museum dedicated to the former national carrier.

October 14, 2021 / 04:03 PM IST
How to monetise the massive art collection has entered the debate following the Air India sale.

How to monetise the massive art collection has entered the debate following the Air India sale.

As the government has finally inked the sale of Air India to the Tata Group, one asset of the airline that is attracting the most eyeballs is a massive art collection many describe as a "national treasure". Several theories circulate about the fate of this asset, which the government has retained under non-core assets that won't be transferred unlike the company's core assets.

While it was widely believed that the art collection would be taken over by the Ministry of Culture with a government-to-government transfer of the entire artworks to the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA), it has now come to rest with the Air India Assets Holding Limited, a Special Purpose Vehicle created by the government, before a transfer of the works is made.

According to the latest Air India balance sheet for last year, the artworks are valued at Rs 600,000 as of April 1, 2019. On the paper, it is a figure that reflects the original prices (four anas or one rupee or 100 rupees) paid for some of these works and the depreciation over the years. "We do not have the complete list of artworks of the collection and the value assigned to arrive at this final figure of 600,000 rupees," says well-known art and antiquities lawyer Siddharth Mehta. "Art is an asset that appreciates over time," adds Mehta, managing partner of the Mumbai-based law firm Mehta & Padamsey.

"The Air India balance sheet says the art collection will first go to the holding company, which could then transfer it to the Ministry of Culture or NGMA," says Mehta. "Once it is transferred, we may see the Ministry of Culture making a real assessment of the value of these artworks," he adds. "This is perhaps one of the largest transfers of an art collection of such national importance in modern Indian history. It is going to be a monumental transfer."

Though the art collection has paintings by famous artists like M F Husain, V S Gaitonde, S H Raza and Anjolie Ela Menon, a huge number of antiquities and sculptures make it a rare treasure trove. "Air India has both sculptures, antiquities and paintings in its collection. The value of these antiquities is phenomenal. You have sculptures created 500 years ago," he adds.

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"It is not only about the Gaitondes and the Husains," says Tasneem Mehta, a member of the committee formed by Air India seven years ago to preserve the collection. "There are antiquities, textiles, design, many more. What is interesting about it is that few museums have collections like this. Air India was trying to show the world the whole range of India's skills and talent," says Tasneem Mehta, a former vice-chairman of Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH).

Tasneem Mehta, who believes the collection must be handed over to the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Mumbai City Museum (formerly the Victoria and Albert Museum), says it is a "priceless collection". "There are 2,000-2,500 objects. The value of one painting or antiquity could be Rs 10 crore today and Rs 20 crore tomorrow. Museums worldwide assess their works only when they travel to an exhibition," adds Tasneem Mehta, the honorary director of Dr Bhau Daji Lad museum. "Museums normally never assign values to their works."

The offer to house the Air India collection in the Dr Bahu Daji Lad museum, Mumbai's first art museum, was made to the then Culture Secretary Raghvendra Singh last year. "Mumbai should get the collection. I offered our museum to Culture Secretary Raghvendra Singh. I said we would create a building for the Air India collection. We are recognised worldwide and have a conservation lab," says Tasneem Mehta.

How to monetise the massive art collection has entered the debate following the Air India sale. Among the ways experts believe monetising could be done include, specially curated exhibitions across the world, making the collection accessible to the public through prints (something which Air India does through gifts to prominent clients) and replicas of antiquities, and taking the works to places other than tier-1 and tier-2 cities. Another is an outright sale through international auction houses.

Rohit Nandan,  the Air India Chairman and Managing Director between 2011 and 2015, says the carrier was merely a custodian of the "national treasure". "Auctioning the collection wasn't a priority. We just wanted to preserve it," says Nandan, currently vice-chairman of the Uttar Pradesh Public Services Tribunal. During his tenure, there were discussions about handing over the collection to NGMA, which fell through as Air India wasn't prepared to give the national gallery the ownership they wanted.

Most of the Air India art collection is housed in its Nariman Point building in Mumbai while the airline offices in foreign cities like London, Hong Kong, Tokyo and Toronto have displayed many artworks. "We wanted to bring them back to India, but there is heavy customs duty on artworks," says Nandan, who asked the staff to move a painting of Husain on the wall of his office in Mumbai to a safer place because he feared the wind from the sea would cause deterioration of the artwork.

Artist Bose Krishnamachari, whose works are part of the Air India art collection, remembers donating one after the airline sponsored his travel to London in 1993. "Most of the artists have travelled on Air India decades ago for shows abroad. In return, they used to give their works free to the airline," says Bose, president of the Kochi Muziris Biennale. "It is necessary to archive the whole collection like museums do. Thereafter, the works could be exhibited for two to three months in curated shows," he adds.

"There was a time the maharajas used to patronise artists. Once the maharajas went away after independence, Air India under the system devised by the Tatas believed big corporations must step in to promote art and culture in the country," explains Jitender Bhargava, a former Executive Director of Air India. "As a consequence Air India began collecting art directly from artists for two reasons: one to encourage them and two, to use this in its booking offices abroad. The idea was when a visitor steps into the Air India office, they get a feel of India," says Bhargava.

The Air India folklore is filled with incredible stories about its art collection amassed between the 1950s and 1990s. "Whenever Husain came to Mumbai, he would open his thela and take out unframed canvases and sell them to Air India for 100-200 rupees," says Bhargava, who left the airline in 2010 after a two-decade-long service. "There were other famous artists too," he adds. In the process, the airline came to possess a huge collection of Indian art. "I had an antique clock in my office in Mumbai. A Parsi gentleman used to come only to wind its delicate hands," he quips. Nobody in the airline did any attempt to value the collection, which Bhargava says would run into "hundreds of crores".
Faizal Khan is an independent journalist who writes on art.
first published: Oct 14, 2021 03:48 pm

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