By: John Elliott

Sotheby’s achieved a double first in London this week with an auction of 30 South Asian paintings that had never before been offered for public sale, and then sold an explicitly homosexual work by Bhupen Khakhar, one of India’s most controversial modern artists, for £2.54 million, more than doubling the artist’s previous auction record.

Two Men in Benares (above) has caused a sensation since Khakhar painted it in 1982, choosing the Hindus’ sacred city, also called Varanasi, for the location. It is so explicit, with two naked men embracing alongside village scenes, that there have been objections to its public display since it was first shown in Mumbai in 1986, when Khakhar used it to indicate that he was gay (in a country where that was, till last year, illegal).

The £2.54m (£2.1m hammer price plus buyer’s premium) was more than four times the top estimate.

It was achieved after a long-drawn-out tense series of small-step bids, eventually with two determined buyers battling through the second million pounds. The winner is believed to be an American, possibly buying for a US museum. The runner-up, who fought back till the price topped £2 million, is thought to be an Indian collector living in London.

The auction, on June 10, totaled £5,489,875 (including buyer’s premium) and was the high spot of London’s South Asian art week. Sotheby’s had another general £1.97 million sale, producing a total for the two auctions of £7.46 million, far above the estimates of £4.1 million-£5.8 million).

On June 11 Christie’s annual London auction produced a total of  £5.88 million, and a two-day Saffronart on-line auction is taking place now.

The Khakhar work formed part of a collection assembled, mostly directly from artists, by Guy and Helen Barbier, who visited India frequently from the US in the 10 years from 1978 when he was setting up Arthur Anderson, then a leading accountancy firm. They became friendly with various artists including Khakhar, Ram Kumar, and two who are still painting in Delhi, Krishen Khanna and Rameshwar Broota.

Helen Barbier, who was in London for the sale, said Khakhar’s Benares work was one of their favorites because it was a powerful spectacle of village life and humanity.

It was a time, she said, when artists were producing political and socially conscious works (more so than is usual now).

Two Broota paintings in the auction demonstrate this, both from the artist’s Ape series. They show, as one writer has put it, “a nation fighting internal demons and not ones from the outside.” One of these works, Anatomy of that Old Story (above), almost quadrupled its estimate at £423,000 (£340,000 hammer price plus buyer’s premium).

The main strength of the collection is that it contained significant early works by famous names, done before the artists had settled into their better-known popular series.

There was an expressive painting, Marathi Women by M.F.Husain that sold for a hammer price of £350,000, almost five times the estimate.

Townscapes, and an intimate painting of a couple, by Ram Kumar contrasted with his focus in later years on numerous landscape-based abstracts.

The Christie’s sale also benefited from offering early works, notably a cityscape painted by S.H.Raza in 1952, long before he produced his usual bright squares, circles and triangles. This gouache and ink on paper went for a hammer price of £450,000, more than double the top estimate of £200,000 and the second highest ever auction price paid for a South Asian work on paper. A traumatic Raza oil on canvas of a reddish church and landscape did similarly well.

These works were a refreshing change at the auctions that are usually dominated by the later works of the Progressives. Almost inevitably, Christie’s had a Tyeb Mehta work, Falling Figure with Bird (right),  on their auction catalogue cover, and Sotheby’s put an equally predictable but important F.N.Souza, (which the artist described as a “probable masterpiece” (below) on its cover.

Both paid off. The Tyeb topped Christie’s sale at a hammer price of £1.4m, lower than the bottom £1.5m forecast. Sotheby’s Souza went for a hammer price of £980,000, beating a £800,000 top estimate.

India art buyers are generally cautious and lack the imagination to stray far from these known names. The Barbier collection shows that the focus could be wider.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at www.ridingtheelephant.com.