By: John Elliott

It looks as though auction interest might be picking up in India’s contemporary art market, where prices slumped a decade ago. That followed a few years of over-priced frenetic buying by image-conscious collectors who were chasing the latest big names during the country’s art boom of the early 2000s.

Saffronart, India’s leading auction house, this week sold all 47 lots in an on-line auction from the Amaya Collection of contemporary works for just under US$1 million. The collector was Amrita Jhaveri, formerly with Christie’s, who was one of India’s first serious buyers of contemporary art from the late 1990s.

The question now is whether this indicates a real recovery of interest. Dinesh Vazirani, founder of the auction house, thinks it might for two reasons. “Every time a great collection comes in, there’s a lot of excitement and the market regenerates itself,” he says, adding that younger collectors are interested in more recent works at a time when those by earlier generations of modern artists are becoming more expensive.

Hugo Weihe, who was till recently Saffronart’s CEO and earlier headed Christie’s South Asia sales, says the auction benefitted from the works being fresh to market and coming from a single owner who was a respected collector. “This provided the context for good results, and it bodes well for the growth of the market”.

Saurabh Society by Atul Dodiya

Amrita Jhaveri, who runs the Jhaveri Gallery in Mumbai, sold the works because she had too many in store and needed to rationalize her collection. The single source gave a coherence to the auction that a sale of randomly collected works might have lacked.

Some works were sold for less than Jhaveri originally paid, but most showed considerable gains. A bronze and milk urns bronze sculpture (above) by Subodh Gupta, who benefited hugely from the buying craze in the early 2000s, sold in the auction for US$257,916 including buyer’s premium. It is one of a series of three and Jhaveri bought hers a decade or so ago for less than 10 percent of that figure.

New Avataar by Chintan Upadhyay

Gupta hit a US$1.1 million high in 2008 for an airport luggage trolley painting in a Christie’s auction, but prices crashed and a similar work fetched only £180,000 (US$250,000) at Sotheby’s in 2010. Jhaveri says the bottom didn’t fall out of the over-inflated market at that time. “It went back to where it should have been.” She thinks the prices achieved in her auction indicated realistic values – they were all under US$100,000, apart from Gupta’s scooter, and about a half were under US$10,000.

Tyeb Mehta’s Durga Mahisasura Mardini

Other artists in the auction included well-known names such as Jitish Kallat, G. Ravinder Reddy, Bharti Kher, Chintan Upadhyay and Surendran Nair. The second top sale was Saurabh Society, a 48in x 72in oil on canvas (above) depicting village India by Atul Dodiya, which sold for £72.870 including premium.

There have been very few contemporary auctions in recent years, though some works have started to creep into moderns sales and AstaGuru, a Mumbai-based on-line auction house, had an auction in October 2016.

The Jhaveri sale came at the end of a busy few weeks for India and South Asian modern art auctions.

Sotheby’s bounced back into prominence with a partially successful mostly-moderns sale in Mumbai on November 29 that included furniture and photographs. It notched up sales totaling US$7.9 million, with 80 percent of 59 lots being sold (having overcome the loss of its India CEO who went on leave a week before the auction after being named in the country’s MeToo wave).

The Little Girl in Blue by Amrita Sher-Gil

Filling a prestige pre-Christmas slot in the auction calendar curiously vacated two years ago by Christie’s, Sotheby’s total was not far off the US$8.31 million achieved by its rival in New York two months ago.

It was notable for having works that have rarely been seen or offered on the market, but two of its top four paintings by famous members of the post-war Progressives group, M.F. Husain and V.S. Gaitonde, failed to sell because, experts said, they were priced too high. This followed a similar situation in London on October 23, when four of its five top lots failed to find buyers and sales totaled an astonishingly low £974,313.

In Mumbai, its highest priced work, a 58in x 41in acrylic on canvas by Tyeb Mehta titled Durga Mahisasura Mardini (above), sold for a hammer price of US$2.43 million, below the lowest estimate. This was surprising because the work had been with the same owner since it was painted in 1993 so was a fresh offering.

It did nevertheless compare well with a very low Mehta sale at the New York Christie’s auction two months ago when Diagonal XV, a 66in x 51in oil on canvas, went for a hammer price of just US$1.15 million (US$1.39 million including buyers’ premium). That was well below a US$1.5-2 million estimate, and also lower than what was assumed to be the reserve price. Perhaps the market for this leading artist is beginning to fade and his works need more sensitive pricing.

The Bathing Ghat by Bhupen Khakhar

Sotheby’s most notable work in Mumbai was a small 19in x 16in oil on canvas, The Little Girl in Blue by Amrita Sher-Gil (above), which sold for a hammer price of US$2.22 million – U$$2.68 million including the premium. This was well above the top estimate of US$1.7 million and an auction record for the artist. The work had remained in the same collection for 80 years after being displayed in the artist’s first solo show in 1937.

The top end of Indian modern art auctions has been dominated for years by just a handful of names – Souza, Gaitonde, Husain as well as Mehta – so it was noteworthy that Saffronart’s top lot in its moderns auction (which followed the contemporaries), was for a work by Bhupen Khakhar, a far less well known artist from the same Progressives group. This was a 68in x 45in oil on canvas titled The Bathing Ghat (above), which sold for US$900,000, including buyers premium, almost double the top estimate.

Louis Armstrong by F.N.Souza

That was the second highest auction price ever recorded for this ostentatiously gay artist who was largely ignored till he had a retrospective at London’s Tate Modern gallery in 2016. His auction record of US$1.1 million was achieved at a Sotheby’s auction in London a year ago. Now it is rare to find a moderns auction that does not include his work as owners seek to benefit from his growing popularity. Sotheby’s had five of his works in its auction.

Another remarkable result was achieved by Bonham’s, which is rarely in the news, at a sale in London last month when an 11in x 8in ink on paper drawing of Louis Armstrong by F.N.Souza, one of the leading moderns, reached a record price of £125,000 (US$159,459) including premium.

With these auctions, Saffronart has established itself as the market leader, beating Christie’s with total sales so far this year of US$28.89 million accounting for 28.55 percent of the market compared with Christie’s US$26.63 million (26.35 percent). AstaGuru comes next with US$16.55 million followed by Sotheby’s at US$11.73 million.

The cardinal rules for the Indian market have been reinforced with these results – find fresh works with the best pedigree (provenance is the correct word) in terms of ownership and pitch them at estimates and reserve prices that do not deter bidders. Also choose the most practical location – New York with all its prestige can be matched or outclassed by Mumbai.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant