Indian who felled Archer squabbles for art
London, Feb. 6: The ownership of two paintings, worth a total of £300,000, by Francis Newton Souza — the distinguished Indian artist who died in Mumbai, aged 77, in 2002 — is being disputed in an unusual case which started yesterday in the high court in London.
Aziz Kurtha, a Dubai-based businessman, and Michael Marks, an art dealer, both claim title to the works — Head Of A Portuguese Navigator and Chalice With Host.
Back in the 1980s, Kurtha enjoyed centre stage in a high-profile drama in London involving a prostitute by the name of Monica Coghlan and the novelist (now Lord) Jeffrey Archer.
Kurtha, described at the time as "an Indian businessman settled in London", had paid Coghlan for her services on the night of September 8, 1986, and claimed that afterwards, as he dropped her off at Shepherd Market in Mayfair, he saw her being picked up by Archer.
Coghlan did not recognise Archer, who, as a favourite of Margaret Thatcher, has become the powerful deputy chairman of the Conservative Party. But Kurtha did and informed Coghlan who her famous client was.
Thanks to Kurtha's intervention, Archer's alleged indiscretions found their way into the tabloids. Archer, who was and is still married to a Cambridge academic, Mary Archer — the judge called her "fragrant" — sued and won £500,000 in damages. But in 1991, when it was proved that Archer had lied under oath after his alibi confessed to perjury, the novelist was jailed for four years. A decade later, Coghlan died, aged 50, when her car collided with that of a robber trying to make a getaway.
Now, Kurtha, no stranger to the courts since he has a law background, is back at the centre of controversy again.
Kurtha, who had once presented an Asian TV programme in Britain, moved to Dubai after the Archer case and devoted more time on building up an art collection. He would ring up journalists in Mumbai and boast about his extensive M.F. Husain collection.
He also wrote a book about Souza, who was born in 1924 in Saligaon in Goa and shifted to London in 1949 where he lived and worked for many years before moving to New York. He is buried in Mumbai.
In the current case, the two paintings, which date from 1961 and 1953, respectively, are in storage pending a ruling by the judge, Justice Tugendhat.
Kurtha claims he bought them from Souza in New York in 1982 and that they have been stolen, while Marks says he bought them in good faith in January 2006.
Kurtha's counsel, John McCaughran QC, said the value of Souza's work had increased greatly since his death.
He said of Kurtha: "On any view, he is a genuine lover of his subject and has a great interest in it."
By the time Kurtha agreed to buy the pictures, as part of a consignment of 50 paintings and 100 drawings, for $25,000, he already had a substantial collection of Souza's work.
Kurtha told the court that he paid Souza $8,000 immediately with the balance staggered over two or three years. He arranged for art works to be shipped to London, where the majority were kept in storage with about 20 going to a house he had in Kew, west London, which was let to tenants between 1994 and 2001.
When he discovered the two pictures were missing in May 2005, while researching his book, he registered them with the Art Loss Register.
He claimed it was "preposterous" to suggest that he had never owned the paintings in the first place.
Marks said in court that he purchased the paintings in January 2006 from a fellow dealer, Mario Demetriou, for £124,000 and had paid a deposit of £12,500 in cash.
Demetriou said he had bought them the day before from another dealer, who had purchased them for £200 in 1999 from a woman who said she had been given them by her grandmother.