What happened to the Maharajah of Indore’s Brancusi birds?

In 1973 the Tate wanted to buy Brancusi’s black marble “Bird in space” through dealer Richard Feigen, but the sale fell through because the trustees believed the work had been “smuggled” out of India


The Tate wanted to buy one of Brancusi’s greatest sculptures in 1973, but the trustees eventually decided against doing so because they believed it had been “smuggled” out of India. Although the current exhibition at Tate Modern (which travels to the Guggenheim in New York) includes three other “Birds in space”, this explains the absence of his late black marble masterpiece, since it ended up in Australia. Newly-released documents in the Tate Archive chronicle the fate of sculptures from Brancusi’s last great project—a Temple of Love and Peace for an Indian maharajah.

New York dealer Richard Feigen approached the Tate in 1972, offering what he described as “perhaps the most important sculpture of the 20th century.” Even allowing for dealer hype, the Tate still regarded the Brancusi as potentially their greatest sculpture acquisition ever. The black marble “Bird in space” was shipped to London, but it was only on its arrival that the Tate discovered it had been exported from India not as a work of art, but as a “marble stand and a limestone table”.

The extraordinary story of the Modernist masterpiece and the maharajah began soon after 25-year-old Yeshwant Rao Holkar assumed the throne of the ancient central Indian kingdom of Mahratta in 1930. As prince, he had studied in Oxford and had frequently visited Paris, mixing with the artistic avant-garde. After his enthronement, he immediately began work on a new palace, named Manik Bagh or Jewel Gardens. Using the German architect Eckart Muthesius, he created an Art Deco fantasy, complete with the appropriate furnishings (his wife’s chaise longue was designed by Le Corbusier).

The Maharajah of Indore, Yeshwant Rao Holkar, met Brancusi in Paris in 1933, and he quickly ordered three “Birds in space”, in bronze, black marble and white marble. This almost abstract design of a bird taking off in flight had first been made by the sculptor a decade earlier, and he went on to create a series, with each one subtly different. The maharajah’s marble versions are regarded as the masterpieces (along with a 1925 example). Brancusi once wrote: “In my last two birds, I came closest to attaining a just balance”. The black marble bird which the Tate later nearly purchased for £245,000 was also the largest he would ever make.

Initially the maharajah planned to display his Brancusis in an architectural “aviary”, but he later devised a more ambitious plan. Following the death of his young wife in 1937, he invited Brancusi to come out to India to design a Temple of Love and Peace, in which her ashes would be interred. Brancusi turned his hand to architecture, proposing an outdoor structure which would have no doors or windows—it would be entered through an underground passage. Inside the apple-shaped interior was to be a small square pool, with three “birds”, each on one side. The bronze bird would be placed so that it would be lit up by the midday sun once a year. The temple was to be a self-enclosed chamber for spiritual contemplation.

Brancusi arrived in Indore at the very end of 1937, but the maharajah proved elusive. He was away on a tiger hunt, and was also beginning an affair with Marguerite (Peg) Branyan, his daughter’s nurse, from Dallas. They married soon after. A resting place for his first wife’s ashes then seemed less urgent, and after a frustrating month in Indore, Brancusi returned to Paris. What promised to be one of the most remarkable monuments of modern art was never built.

Instead Brancusi’s birds found a less dramatic, but nevertheless important domestic setting in the palace. The 1931 bronze bird remained in the maharajah’s sitting room, a magnificent Art Deco interior with geometrically-shaped furnishings. Everything was carefully placed for effect, and the bronze bird stood on a small stone “collar” above a tall limestone stand, the ensemble designed by Brancusi. An elegant metal standard lamp, which echoed its shape, reflected light onto the bronze surface of the sculpture.

The two soaring 1933 marble birds, one black and the other white, were placed in the banquet hall, carefully set against a long wall, with their upper parts lit by Art Deco-style standard lamps. On their stands and “collars”, they were each nearly 11 feet high.

The maharajah’s marriage to Marguerite Branyan was relatively brief and they divorced in 1943. As part of the settlement, he gave her the bronze bird. There is nothing to suggest that it was illegally exported from India. Following Ms Branyan’s death, the bronze sculpture passed to her son, Richard Holkar. In 1972 Richard Feigen sold the bronze bird to Californian collector Norton Simon and today the work is on view in the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena. A museum spokesman said last month that when the bronze was purchased, “we confirmed the provenance, that the maharaja gave it to his American wife in 1943.”

The two marble birds remained in Manik Bagh palace. After the maharajah’s death in 1961, they went to his daughter from his first marriage, Maharanee Usha Devi, who married Satish Malhotra.

In the late 1960s New York dealer Richard Feigen came onto the scene, seeing an opportunity to sell these icons of modern sculpture. Patiently he pursued his goal, and in 1972 he offered the black marble bird to the Tate.

The minutes of the Tate trustees then record how events unfolded. In January 1973 worrying news emerged: “The owner had told Mr Feigen that circa 12 years ago the Indian Government had approached him indicating that they regarded his Brancusis as national treasures which ideally the Government would wish to retain in India... Mr Feigen felt that there was likely to be ‘a row’ when the Indian Government discovered that the Brancusi had left India. The [sculpture] base was being temporarily retained by the owner since he felt it might be useful to cover up for the disappearance of the sculpture if he was challenged.”

A month later the Tate trustees were given further advice. This pointed out “the highly embarrassing situation which could arise if the Brancusi had been exported in contravention to Indian law and the Tate was thus involved in what could only seem a shady deal.” In March the trustees noted that investigations into the legal situation had proved inconclusive.

A month later, on 15 April, they were told that the black marble sculpture had just arrived at the London docks, without the base. Further advice was given: “If it proved to be an illegal export, this fact might cause extreme embarrassment both for the Gallery and possibly the country as a whole, having in mind that the sculpture was such an important work. The Tate might well feel morally obliged to return it, especially if representations were made at government level.”

The dénouement came at the trustees meeting on 14 May 1973: “The sculpture had clearly been smuggled out of India, the bill of lading for the transport vessel describing it as a ‘marble stand and limestone table’.” The trustees decided to drop the purchase.

The Marlborough Gallery had just offered the Tate another Brancusi, which was almost as important a work. The Tate therefore began negotiations with the gallery to buy “Maiastra”, which was acquired later in the year for £162,000.

A sale of both marble birds, the black and the white, was eventually negotiated with the the National Gallery of Australia. The deal was finalised in January 1974. A Liechtenstein company called Spafford Establishment acted as an intermediary between Feigen and the museum.

Before buying the marble sculptures, the Australian gallery did examine the legal situation. The minutes of their acquisitions committee on 19-21 November 1973 record that “a check has been made with the Indian High Commission in Canberra about the legality of their export. It has been ascertained that at present the only prohibition against the export of works of art relates to ancient Indian artefacts.” The white bird arrived from Geneva in March 1974 and the black marble bird came from London in May.

Neither of the marble birds had their bases, and the Australian gallery was told the originals “had been destroyed in India”. The bases of the “Birds in space” are not merely pedestals, but are very much part of the whole sculpture. Designed by Brancusi, they help give the impression that the birds are soaring into the sky. The loss of the bases was therefore unfortunate. In 1982 replicas were carved for the gallery.

Last month Richard Feigen confirmed that he had arranged the sale of all three Brancusi birds. He had bought the bronze from Richard Holkar in America and the two marble birds had come from Usha Devi and her husband Satish Malhotra. Responding to queries on the two marble sculptures, Mr Feigen told The Art Newspaper: “I refused to take delivery in India. Ownership passed at sea after they left India.” Mr Feigen took the stone “collar” of one of the marble birds with him by air from India, and the other came with the other sculpture. He confirmed that the bases of the two sculptures were left behind in India. When asked about the Tate’s concerns in 1973, Mr Feigen told us that “there was no prohibition on the export of 20th-century art.”

The Art Newspaper also spoke last month with Satish Malhotra in Bombay. When asked about the two marble “Birds in space”, he said that he “didn’t really know much about them”, since they had been owned by another party. “The Maharajah dealt with these many years ago and we are not really aware about them.” When asked if he or his wife Usha, the Maharanee, had ever owned them, he stated, “no, we never had them.”