India’s Economic Gloom Dampens Art Sales

India’s economic woes and civil unrest appear to have had a negative effect on Indian art auctions, with three sales organized by Sotheby’s, Saffronart and AstaGuru producing unexpectedly poor results and failing to meet targets. Works on the front covers of two of the auctions failed to sell.

This is a significant setback because the artists were leading names such as Tyeb Mehta, S.H. Raza and M.F. Husain from the Bombay-based Progressives Artists’ Group of the late 1940s and 1950s, who dominates the top end of the Indian art auctions. (All prices are given in US equivalents)

Only Pundole, a long-established Mumbai gallery, has had a successful auction, which it achieved by restricting the number of lots and prices and by choosing works that have not been offered at auctions recently.

Such a slump has not been seen for some years. Part of the reason will have been India’s declining rate of economic growth, which now stands at 4.5 percent compared with 8 percent last year, and the failure of the Narendra Modi government to provide the necessary boost while at the same time driving divisive Hindu nationalist policies that are causing unrest across the country.

Sotheby’s was the first to hit problems in Mumbai on November 15 with a live auction that failed to gain momentum as the evening proceeded.

Bidding on the top lot, a 60in x 40in abstract oil on canvas by V.S. Gaitonde (above), stopped at US$2 million, well below the estimate. This seemed surprising, coming after a successful US$3.79 million sale, including buyer’s premium, of a Gaitonde in a Saffronart live Delhi auction in September.

The best result came for a depiction (below) by F.N.Souza of The Last Supper (a favorite subject for Indian artists) that was sold for US$960,000, well above the top estimate.

The auction’s sales totaled only US$3.36 million compared with much higher estimates, and 12 of the 61 lots failed to find a buyer. That was far below the result of Sotheby’s first Mumbai auction in November last year when it notched up a total of US$7.9 million.

The sharp drop illustrates the vagaries of showpiece auctions in Mumbai – Christie’s withdrew from its pre-Christmas sales after a poor showing two years earlier.

Pundole came next with a live Mumbai auction on December 5. It had sensed about three months earlier that the market was weakening, so it reduced the number of lots it was offering to 40 compared with 88 in its previous sale four months earlier. Only two of the 40 had been seen in recent auctions. The prices were also lower than usual with a top estimate of US$420,000 compared with four times that amount in August.

That work, an 82in x 176in acrylic on canvas by M.F.Husain (see cover) titled 3Ms (Mad Onna, Mother Theresa, Mad Huri), was being sold by a member of the artist’s family so was being offered for the first time. It beat its top estimate, while a 38in x 23in oil on board by F.N. Souza sold for double its middle estimate. The total for the auction, with all 40 lots sold, almost doubled the estimate including a 15 percent Buyers Premium.

Next came a more ambitious two-day online auction by Mumbai-based Saffronart, the current market leader in South Asian modern and contemporary art, that closed on December 10 with four of the top six lots failing to meet their reserve prices.

The two that did sell were both by S.H. Raza, the best being US$462,000, but works by M.F.Husain and Bhupen Khakhar, a currently fashionable gay artist, failed. Saffronart’s auction total was US$1.8 million with 76 percent of lots sold, which contrasted with previous better results.

Finally, in this run of auctions, Mumbai-based AstaGuru’s two-day online sale ended on December 20, having failed to sell its catalogue cover work, a striking 59in x 35.5in acrylic on canvas (left) from Tyeb Mehta’s Rickshaw Puller series with an estimate of US$$2.88 million.

Successful bids included an unusual view of the Last Supper by M.F. Husain (below) that fetched US$499,999. The top sale, Man in City by Akbar Padamsee, went for US$524,999, well above the estimate.

The auction houses are hoping that these results have been caused more by over-ambitious pricing than by deeper economic or other worries, and that interest and sales will pick up at the annual India Art Fair at the end of January and then with sales in the spring.

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