Sunday, September 26

The mystery about the origins of Howard Hodgkin’s collection of Indian art could cause it to be lost in the UK | Howard Hodgkin

Indian paintings and drawings had been his lifelong passion and, before his death in 2017, artist Sir Howard Hodgkin hoped that his collection would be acquired by Ashmolean in Oxford, only for the museum to reject his offer amid concerns. that some of the works should never have left India.

Now Britain’s loss could be America’s gain. The trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York have discussed the possibility of acquiring works believed to be worth more than 7.2 million pounds. The collection contains more than 120 exquisite paintings and drawings dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries.

The Met’s interest was confirmed at the Observer by Hodgkin’s long-term partner Antony Peattie, who added: “It’s all up in the air. Nothing is resolved. “

He recalled that the artist, who died at 84, had wanted the collection to stick together: “That was his dream.”

Hodgkin, who represented Great Britain at the Venice Biennale and won the Turner Prize, created vibrant abstracts that radiated color and light, inspired in part by his love for India. He once said: “It changed the way I think and probably the way I paint.” He visited India regularly and his main commissions included a mural for the British Council building in New Delhi.

A watercolor depicting three figures together in an ornate building, seated on rugs on a mosaic floor
Rama, Lakshman and Sita in Panchavati, Mughal sub-imperial, c 1595-1600. Photograph: Howard Hodgkin Collection

He began collecting the country’s art when he was a schoolboy in the late 1940s, gradually refining his options. When exhibiting his collection in 2012, Ashmolean described it as “one of the best in the world … shaped by the eye of an artist.” Many of the images reflect his love for elephants, including depictions by Mughal artists. In a talk at the Ashmolean in 1992, Hodgkin said: “A great collection often seems to be the result of a very rich man going shopping. It is not. In reality, it is partly a disease, an incurable obsession … At worst, it is greed, or the simple desire to possess, like a child at a party receiving something to take home. But it is much more than that at its finest. “

Hodgkin is believed to have offered a “bargain deal” to the Ashmolean. But a source recalled that it was all spoiled by concerns about the ownership history of some of the paintings. A funding body privately warned the museum that without proof that certain works left India fully legally, it would not offer a grant for the purchase and future grants could also be affected if the museum acquired them anyway. .

However, the source added: “The collection had been exhibited in northern Italy under the patronage of the President of India. That would not have happened if the Indians had been concerned about leaving India. But the funding body didn’t want it and that was the end of the collection’s acquisition. ”The funding body denies that account.

Dr. Alexander Sturgis, Director of Ashmolean, said: “It would have been wonderful if some of the works had come to us. But that was not to be. Andrew Topsfield, our curator, worked on the collection to identify the works with a clear and safe provenance, which was approximately 40% of the collection. We were hoping to acquire that part of the collection. But Howard wanted to keep the collection together, and for that reason, we couldn’t continue. “

The problem was finding a documented provenance, he said: “For museums, we need to have proven provenance as secure as possible.”

Peattie, who is a music writer, said: “The priorities when Howard collected in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s were quality, not provenance. People weren’t even talking about provenance. Then it became of utmost importance, influenced by archeology and the sculpture that belongs to the temples and has been torn from its place ”.

Sir Howard Hodgkin
Sir Howard Hodgkin with one of his works. He won the Turner Prize in 1985. Photograph: David Levene / The Guardian

He said Hodgkin had bought from international distributors, including those in London, New York and Hong Kong: “I didn’t know where things were coming from before they got to those distributors. He did not think of that.

“I don’t know of any work that shouldn’t have come from India. I’ve always tried to find out, but we haven’t been able to trace anything in the form of evidence. “

When asked if Hodgkin was disappointed by Ashmolean’s inability to acquire his collection, he said: “Howard accepted that it was overwhelming force. Nothing I could do. “

He recalled Hodgkin’s passion for India. “He loved working there. He rented an apartment in Mumbai. The spare room was the study. “

The Metropolitan declined to comment.

If the questionable works are removed, the Ashmolean would still be interested, Sturgis confirmed: “It is a remarkable collection of works of incredible quality and … a reflection of one of the most important artists in the country.”

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