The disappearance of priceless pieces
Chandigarh, the first planned city of independent India, is known for its architectural and cultural heritage. The city was designed by the famous Swiss-French architect Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret, who also created some of the most iconic furniture pieces for the city’s public buildings and institutions. These pieces, made of teak wood and cane, reflect the modernist style and aesthetic of the architects, and are considered as valuable as their buildings.
However, in the past two years, Chandigarh has lost many of these heritage furniture items to foreign buyers, who have auctioned them off at exorbitant prices. According to senior advocate Ajay Jagga, who has been alerting the Chandigarh administration about these auctions, the city has lost furniture worth Rs 15 crore in this period. Jagga has also been a member of the Heritage Committee, which was formed to protect and preserve the city’s heritage.
Jagga said that he had informed the administration about the auctions well in advance, but they did not take any action to stop them or recover the furniture. He said that he had also written to the Prime Minister’s Office, the Ministry of Home Affairs, and the Ministry of Culture, but did not receive any response.
The latest auction in France
The latest auction took place in France on October 5, 2023, where 20 pieces of Chandigarh’s furniture were sold for Rs 3.81 crore. Among them were a table designed by Jeanneret for Panjab University, which fetched Rs 70.1 lakh, and a set of ten box chairs, also by Jeanneret, which went for Rs 36.8 lakh. Other items included a pair of easy armchairs, a storage cabinet, and a desk.
The auction was conducted by Artcurial, a French auction house that specializes in art and design. The auction catalogue described the furniture as “rare and exceptional” and attributed them to Jeanneret. It also mentioned that they came from “an important private collection in India”.
The catalogue did not reveal how the furniture was acquired from Chandigarh or who the seller was. However, Jagga said that he had traced the origin of some of the pieces to Panjab University, Punjab Engineering College, and Government College of Art. He said that these institutions had either sold or discarded the furniture without realizing their value or significance.
The legal and ethical issues
The auction of Chandigarh’s heritage furniture raises several legal and ethical issues. First of all, it violates the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act of 1972, which prohibits the export of any antiquity or art treasure without a license from the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). The Act defines an antiquity as any object that is at least 100 years old and an art treasure as any human-made or human-shaped object that has artistic or aesthetic value.
According to Jagga, the furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret falls under both categories, as they are more than 100 years old and have artistic value. He said that he had filed a petition in the Punjab and Haryana High Court in 2016, seeking a direction to declare the furniture as antiquities and art treasures under the Act. However, the petition is still pending.
Secondly, it violates the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970, which India is a signatory to. The Convention aims to protect cultural property from theft, illicit trafficking, and illegal export. It also obliges states to take measures to prevent such acts and to return cultural property to its country of origin.
According to Jagga, the furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret is part of Chandigarh’s cultural property, as it represents its identity and history. He said that he had written to UNESCO to intervene in the matter and to help recover the furniture from foreign countries.
Thirdly, it violates the moral rights of the architects who created the furniture. Moral rights are a set of rights that protect the personal and reputational interests of authors and artists in their works. They include the right to attribution, which means that the author or artist should be recognized as the creator of their work; and the right to integrity, which means that their work should not be distorted or mutilated without their consent.
According to Jagga, the furniture designed by Le Corbusier and Jeanneret has been misattributed and misrepresented by foreign auction houses and buyers. He said that some of them have been falsely attributed to Le Corbusier alone or to other architects; while others have been modified or restored without respecting their original design and material.
The need for action
The auction of Chandigarh’s heritage furniture is not only a loss for the city but also for India’s cultural heritage. It reflects the negligence and apathy of the authorities and the public towards the preservation and protection of the city’s legacy. It also exposes the lack of awareness and appreciation of the value and significance of the furniture among the institutions and individuals who own them.
There is an urgent need for action to stop the auction and recover the furniture from foreign countries. The Chandigarh administration should take proactive steps to identify, document, and safeguard the furniture in its custody. It should also coordinate with the ASI, the Ministry of Culture, and UNESCO to enforce the legal provisions and conventions that protect the furniture from illicit export and trafficking. It should also seek the cooperation of foreign governments and agencies to facilitate the return of the furniture to India.
The public and the media should also play a role in creating awareness and pressure on the authorities to act on this issue. They should also demand accountability and transparency from the institutions and individuals who are responsible for the custody and disposal of the furniture. They should also celebrate and promote the heritage and culture of Chandigarh, which is a unique and remarkable achievement of modern India.