Bulls Return to Indian Art Market

It hasn’t taken much to lift the gloom of Delhi’s elite. Three good months of economic growth plus a booming stock market were capped on Sept. 4 when India’s modern art market came alive with sales totaling the equivalent of US$6.38 million at an auction mounted by Saffronart of Mumbai. Only four of 90 works on offer had to be withdrawn after failing to meet their reserve prices, which is far less than usual in Indian art auctions.

The Rs38.27 million price was just above the total higher estimates for the works, and nearly 50 above above the Rs25.74 million lower estimates.

The top sale was La Terre, a 50x29-in acrylic on canvas by S.H.Raza, one of India’s leading elderly masters. It sold at a hammer price that matched the top estimate of Rs7 crore hammer price – US$1.31m including buyer’s premium. A rather dark and gloomy oil on canvas by Jehangir Sabavala titled Flight in Egypt 1 tripled its estimates to sell (including premium) for the artist’s world record price of US$500,000.

The power elite, as they are known in this city, are supposed to be in the depths of despair now that Narendra Modi has burst into Delhi as prime minister of the new Bharatiya Janata Party, shattering the self-confidence, power and patronage of political and social circles who have swirled around the Nehru-Gandhi led Congress Party for years if not decades.

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But last night, many of them were at the Saffronart evening auction in Delhi’s smart Oberoi Hotel as buyers as well as spectators. Unlike such events in the UK and US, drink and snacks were served during the sale in a large room alongside the auction ballroom, and refreshments were brought into the hall for select high-rollers.

The party mood continued after the auction, which was the most successful since Christie’s of London held its first ever auction in India last December in Mumbai with sales totaling US$15.45 million.

The next big events on the India art scene are the annual auctions in New York later this month, and then there is an India Week with three auctions being staged in London by Sotheby’s at the beginning of next month. Sotheby’s will span five centuries from Mughal miniatures and the art and rare photographs of imperial India (some lost or hidden for many years) to modern and contemporary works.

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The ‘modern’ highlight will be Blue Painting, (left) a 45in x 35in oil on canvas painted by Tyeb Mehta in 1982, which is being sold by Masanori Fukuoka, a leading Japanese collector, and was unveiled in Delhi two days ago.

A much earlier and unusual small 13in x 7.5in Tyeb Mehta gouache on paper (above), dating from 1954, went last night for a hammer price of Rs8.2 million, more than five times the estimates ($165,000 including buyers’ premium).

The event was the first live auction held in Delhi by Saffronart, which has been pioneering on-line auctions for 12 years. It was also the first big auction staged in the city by professional specialists for several years. Only works by moderns such as Raza, M.F.Husain, F.N.Souza and others were included, and there were none in the contemporary category where prices remain low after a slump a few years ago.

All this helped to draw a far wider selection of Delhi’s collectors than many smaller auctions, most of which fail to create a buzz, and then finish with a considerable number of unsold works. Last week fewer than half the works on offer were sold at an auction (partly to raise funds for a charity) by the Delhi Art Gallery, which has a vast collections and is an active buyer and seller.

A measure of the buzz last night was shown when a small rather evocative 11in x 15in Manjit Bawa pencil and pastel on paper (above) fetched a hammer price of US$41,000, triple the estimates, and also triple the price paid for a very similar work at the Delhi Art Gallery sale.

“People were excited and old collectors came out, with people wanting to feel the market and buy,” says Dinesh Vazarani, Saffronart’s co-founder and the auctioneer. The question now is how long that will last – the auctions in New York and then at Sotheby’s in London will provide some of the answer.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. His blog, Riding the Elephant, can be found at the bottom right corner of AS’s face page.