For years, activists in Chandigarh have pointed to the negligence and lack of maintenance that has led to many antiques disappearing from the city and appearing at international auctions.

Last week, the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence wrote to the Punjab government calling for action against a senior government official for alleged transactions with a businessman accused of smuggling Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret furniture from Chandigarh. It highlights a contrast: such antiques are highly valued by collectors across the world but largely ignored in India. For years, activists in Chandigarh have pointed to the negligence and lack of maintenance that has led to many of Corbusier and Jeanneret’s chairs, bookshelves, benches, tables, lamps and other fixtures disappearing from the city and appearing at international auctions, where they routinely fetch high prices.

High prices 

Antique dealers, led by Parisian Eric Touchaleaume — who is sometimes referred to as the Indiana Jones of antique furniture and is a recognised expert on Corbusier and Jeanneret’s Chandigarh legacy — snapped up much of the furniture during the last 20 years as lack of maintenance coupled with ignorance about its true value led it to being junked or sold for as little as Rs 33 a table. The items bought by international dealers — including Touchaleaume’s vast collection — soon began to appear in auction catalogues, with reserve prices running into several thousand dollars. In its Design sale in New York last June, for example, the auction house Bonhams listed the teak ‘Demountable Desk’ designed by Jeanneret for Chandigarh’s Secretariat for $20,000-30,000. Jeanneret’s iconic ‘V-Leg’ chairs have found a home in the collections of many enthusiasts, including socialite Kourtney Kardashian who is known to have a dozen of these chairs. A set of eight of these V-Leg chairs were sold in the Bonhams Design auction for $21,250 while a library table fetched $62,500.

The prices that Chandigarh’s furniture has fetched at international auctions have caught the attention of many Chandigarh activists who have been lobbying with the government to recognise the value of the city’s heritage and stop the sale of these items abroad.

However, the few times that Indian authorities did intervene and tried to stop the auctions from taking place, receipts were produced to show that the furniture had been bought legally. In February 2010, the UT administration tried to stop an auction of Chandigarh furniture by Artcurial of Paris but had to back out when an investigation proved the furniture had been acquired legally.

The following year, Indian authorities attempted to stall the sale of Chandigarh furniture by the American auction house Wright. Wright not only refused to halt the sale but also published a notice that highlighted the Indian authorities’ lack of interest in the furniture, which had led to it being sold off as junk in the first place. The notice quoted an official letter from 1986, written by Chandigarh’s then chief architect and secretary, architecture, that said, “Sanction is hereby accorded under Rule 10, Schedule VII of the Delegation of Financial Power Rules, to declare the articles of stores as unserviceable and their disposal at public auction.” Wright wrote, “We believe that the Indian government does not have legal rights to these works, particularly given the fact that the Indian government thought these works were ‘junk’ and authorized the sale of these works at public auction.”

Law & heritage 

Chandigarh’s furniture heritage is in a legal twilight zone, in fact, since it is now recognised by everyone — including the authorities — as being valuable, yet remains bereft of any actual protection under Indian law.