Debottam Bose, known as India’s first art lawyer, says that art lawyers are more important now than ever before because of the boom in the art market, and with fakes and forgeries abounding. The globe-trotting lawyer has worked in various international law firms. He advises institutions and lectures on art law around the world. Excerpts from an interview:
How do you view the art law scene in India?
Since 2003, as the country’s economy looked up, affluent Indians started collecting Indian modern and contemporary art. In the past decade, art has been viewed as an alternative asset class. As art prices have gone through the roof, an unprecedented number of fakes and forgeries [have been produced]. The need for an art lawyer–for independent verification, investigation and for protecting the rights of artists and collectors—is more important than ever.
What is the role of an art lawyer?
An art lawyer advises clients on all aspects of art transaction. The work is equally investigative in nature. You have to physically see the artwork, meet buyers and sellers, gallerists, source and consult art experts, compare market prices, taxes and other legalities to finally arrive at whether a work is genuine with a good title, and close the deal.
How much of an art expert does an art lawyer need to be?
It is important to have an aesthetic eye. I studied art history. I also rely on art experts for their opinion. The key issue is independence and ability to access world authorities and experts on various artists and keep everything confidential.
What challenges did you face as a pioneer in the field?
It is still a niche field in India. One has to practise as a lawyer and gain a diverse amount of experience. This serves as a good foundation since as an art lawyer it is important to understand the dynamic, resolve disputes and maintain relationships. It is not only about contracts and enforcement but also [about having] no conflicts, maintaining confidentiality and having the ability to win clients over and close deals. Alternative dispute resolution is an important cornerstone of art law practice and mediation is important.
A friend and mentor used to say that my role is to build bridges and add value to the relationship.
How aware are the various stakeholders?
It is still early days in India. People are just not used to consulting lawyers, especially an art lawyer, before purchasing art since they won’t even know an art lawyer exists. What makes it alarming is when they are buying expensive works of art. When one buys a property, one involves a lawyer for title search. So why not for an expensive art work? Equally, artists do not know much about their resale rights.
Can you cite an instance where you dealt with authenticity issues?
My team and I travelled to Hamburg, Germany, to investigate and view a Leonardo da Vinci painting. We met the seller’s side. Documents and authenticity affidavits were shared. Whenever I asked to see the painting, there would be a delay. This was an alarm bell. Then we were informed that the seller wanted us to make a deposit and that the painting was not in Hamburg, but in Madrid. This is where I took the decision to abort the deal. Later, I was informed that the work was a fake and an entrapment to secure deposit money from unsuspecting buyers.
How well equipped are Indian laws in dealing with issues in the art market?
Since art law is in its nascent stage in India, the laws and their enforcement have a long way to go. [With the entry of] non-fungible tokens, crypto art legislation is yet to be framed.