The first time I went to Chandigarh was in February 1999 and I was really excited because I was getting down to a project I’d been dreaming about for some fifteen years.
When you travel in India, you have to be fired up for modern architecture to choose to go there before seeing all the other wonders; I found the place a bit sad, inhospitable and lacking upkeep.
But this first negative impression soon faded as I began to fall under its spell.

It took a lot of patience and several days just to get a simple permit to visit the Assembly building (Le Corbusier, architect), even with the help of a small local tourism office. They’d appointed a shy young Sikh to be my guide, H.K. Singh, and he soon proved to be a precious help in getting to know local ways and the ins and outs of Indian bureaucracy.

As for the High Court and Secretariat (Le Corbusier, architect), even today, if you’re an ordinary tourist passing through you can’t go inside. I was only able to do so after several stays – and even then only in part, strictly in the framework of my professional activity.

Who could resist the superb grandeur of the site and the monuments of the Capitol designed by Corb, even seen from afar and stained by the rains? During subsequent stays, I discovered the fabulous vista that opens up, when – in springtime or after a heavy monsoon rain – the sky clears and the hyperbole of the Assembly building tower stands out against the distant Himalayas.

And there was the simple joy of strolling about the city too – keeping an eye out for ordinary facilities designed by Pierre Jeanneret and his team. At the time there wasn’t a single publication listing his work and you had to search for it on your own. All of a sudden I’d find myself stopping in front of a delicate little construction rich in architectural details, like this neighbourhood kindergarten, which recalls the purist creations of the 30s that Jeanneret designed with Corb, his partner since the early 1920s.

And what a delight for the eye to see flowers and plant-life everywhere, from the Leisure Valley with the Rose Garden and the Bougainvillea Garden to the promenade beside Sukhna Lake, the parks and the wide avenues shaded by giant ficus and banyans, grown up in just fifty years in this humid climate, their branches alive with singing birds and often even monkeys.

And who could resist the good-natured courtesy of the townspeople… or remain indifferent to the soul of India, so tangible even in this new town that Nehru hoped would be ‘freed from the traditions of the past’? You feel it everywhere: in the colours of the markets fragrant with spices, the women in flowing saris, the noble turbaned Sikhs, the old Ambassador touring cars and Royal Enfield motorbikes, which are so British, the rickshaws and horse-drawn carts, and the cows wandering about without restraint, serving as itinerant dairies in every district…
In two days, Chandigarh took hold of me – and with every stay since then the feeling has grown deeper. I’ve been there over thirty times now, mostly in the company of my friend and team-mate Gérald Moreau, who joined me in this venture in the second year. But I still feel nostalgia for the Chandigarh of my first visits.

During our early stays in Chandigarh, the municipal depots and those of the University of Punjab were crammed full of furniture discarded by the government, so much so that for lack of space huge heaps of it were to be seen piled up here and there around the city: on the university campus, the terrace roof of the High Court, even on the balconies of administrative buildings in the downtown area…

No one seemed to know what to do with these redundant pieces, which were sold off to second-hand dealers, cabinet-makers and other small tradesmen. They’d buy them for just a few rupees at sales held by the local government, and would recycle the wood to make other things… But a lot of it ended up as firewood too, for heating and cooking.

What with the keen interest we showed in this old furniture, and even though we purchased it at auction paying a lot more than what the local second-hand dealers ever paid, the organizers of the sales started holding them more often and selling off larger quantities. (They were only too pleased at the windfall and thought we were half-mad.) The most important sales took place at the University of Punjab in 1999, and at the High Court in 2002. But many smaller sales were held in most of the government buildings all over the city.

The procedure was much the same as in France, where the Administration des Ventes des Domaines is in charge of selling off redundant State-owned material. All the sales took place within a strict legal framework and were conducted by the administrative authorities of Chandigarh, the Punjab, the Haryana and the University of Punjab.
Anyone who knows how pernickety the Indian Government can be won’t be surprised to hear that proceedings often lasted long months, during which time the committees that took the decision to make the furniture redundant and sell it off deliberated. They were always composed of a broad cross section of stake-holders, to guarantee the transparency of all transactions.
In spite of what certain journalists looking for a sensational story might write, or envious parties bent on stirring up and exploiting a scandal might say: there was nothing devious in these deals and no corruption… Sellers and buyers alike were acting within the framework of Indian law (and international practice too, excepting perhaps North Korea…) governing the sale of redundant administrative furniture and the exporting of goods less than 100 years old. (At the time of the main sales, 1999 to 2002, most of the pieces were from 35 to 45 years old).

It should be said too that what with our interest in buying these pieces of furniture, their selling price soon jumped up on the market, bringing in a lot of aggressive competitors determined to get their share. This created a strong demand, much to the benefit of the sellers. Increasing demand and decreasing supply caused the swift and sustained growth of the market in Europe and the USA.
But people should remember that at the outset there was no guarantee of success, and that we took a considerable risk in accumulating such a stock of old furniture for a period of about seven years, before even beginning to sell any. Not to mention considerable expenses for restoration and promotion. Any profit today is legitimate and in reasonable proportion to the initial outlay.

After 2006, that is to say seven years after we began collecting pieces, we launched a cycle of exhibitions (Salon du Collectionneur at the Grand Palais, Paris 2007; the Paris Mint, in one of Jean Prouvé’s nomad structures, Paris 2010) and auctions, at Artcurial in Paris, Christie’s in New York and with Wright in Chicago. This enabled us to finance our activity and also drew attention to the work of Pierre Jeanneret, who had always been overshadowed by the stature of Le Corbusier, what with the thousands of publications that had made Corb’s name so well known. Jeanneret emerged from anonymity thanks to well documented catalogues, to the point that his pieces got an official rating on the art market, an indispensable condition for the diffusion and protection of all works of art. Our reference book ‘Le Corbusier, Pierre Jeanneret. L’aventure Indienne. Design-Art-Architecture’, published in 2010, gave a clear listing of all the models by type, thus enabling the market to set up on a solid basis. Unfortunately, high prices paved the way for the intrusion of pieces inspired by Pierre Jeanneret models, and even fakes, which are common on the internet and even in some unscrupulous auction houses. A connoisseur can spot them fairly easily by referring to the original typologies reproduced in our book, and by comparing the quality of materials, craftsmanship and finish.

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