Indian Art Auctions Beat Pandemic Gloom

Stay-at-home buyers plug into auctions and boost sales

By: John Elliott

Tyeb Mehta’s figures continue falling, M.F. Husain’s horses prance, F.N. Souza’s faces grimace and S.H. Raza’s Bindus sit squarely in their boxes. The dominance of such works by these highly respected members of Bombay’s mid-late 20th century Progressives Group, with their recognizable brands, has grown during the Covid-19 pandemic as auction houses have sought the safety of focusing on top-selling known names.

Tyeb Mehta’s Untitled falling figure that led the Christie’s sale at a hammer price of U$800,000

The Progressives accounted for all but one of the 13 highest prices achieved in the latest of the summer auctions staged by Christie’s online from New York that closed on July 22 with U$4.83 million in sales (including buyer’s premium).

As many as 30 out of the 64 lots in the catalogue were from the Progressives compared with just 18 out of 75 in the same auction a year ago.

Such caution seems not to have been necessary because online sales of South Asian art have been buoyant since the shutdown began in March. The pandemic has not made potential buyers shrink from spending their money, and instead seems to have made them more interested in doing so, providing estimates and reserve prices are kept within reach.

“People are sitting at home, so they are engaged,” said Dinesh Vazirani, who founded Mumbai-based Saffronart with his wife 20 years ago as an on-line auction house. “They are looking at being at home long-term, so their homes are becoming more important, and they are realizing that art is a long-term asset.”

M.F. Husain’s Untitled horses sold in the AstaGuru auction for U$225,185 hammer price

The Progressives also accounted for the eight highest hammer prices totaling U$3.54 million in the season’s top auction run on-line by Mumbai-based Asta Guru.

That was half the U$7.04 million achieved in the auction, where a similar proportion of the total 50 lots were from the group, roughly in line with the same auction in March last year.

They have also dominated other sales, with Saffronart, the market leader, devoting a two-day auction earlier this month to 10 of Raza’s lower-priced works with sales of U$451,557. In its summer auction last month, the top five works were by Progressives and sales totaled U$2.73 million, though with only 71 percent of the lots selling.

Saffronart has been staging weekly and other smaller and varied auctions, including REDiscovery “art and collectibles” that closed July 23. Sales totaled U$355,661, with good prices for the art, including a G. Ravinder Reddy work (see below).

F.N. Souza’s Frightened Head was among the top Christie’s lots at a hammer price of U$200,000

Vazirani says these auctions bring in new buyers and have helped to build the firm’s total of U$10m sales (including some done privately) since the shutdown began in March.

Siddhanth Shetty, part of the family that runs AstaGuru, says that a third of the lots in its auction went to new buyers at a time when people were “looking for a hedge against traditional [stock] markets”.

The overall result is that South Asian auctions are as strong as they have been in recent years. This is not a repeat of the sharply escalating boom of the early 2000s, but there are continuing solid sales with the “tried and tested” Progressives, as Vazirani puts it, providing the lead.

The Christie’s auction, which closed on July 22, was its first purely online sale for South Asian art and the catalogue was only slightly smaller (by about 10 lots) than its usual sales. It sold 56 of 64 lots and the total hammer price was 13 percent above the lowest estimate, which was a satisfactory but not astounding result. Nishad Avari, who ran the auction, says that the results showed the switch to an on-line format had not been significant.

S.H. Raza’s Panch-Tatva that sold for a hammer price of U$248,116 in the AstaGuru auction

The top lot was Tyeb Mehta’s Falling Figure (above), a 59x49in oil on canvas painted in 1965 with a rather more blurred image than others in his series. It was being auctioned for the first time, which is always a draw, but bidding failed to reach the top estimate of U$900,000 – it sold for a hammer price of U$800,000 ($975,000 including buyers’ premium).

The big surprise was that an attractive and unusual Tyeb reclining nude, which was one of the highlights, failed to sell (photo below). The bidding stopped at U$220,000 compared with an estimate of U$250,000-$350,000. An oil on board measuring 24x36in, it was smaller than most of Mehta’s works that come to auction.

G. Ravinder Reddy’s painted polyester resin on fiberglass works are always popular in auctions – made in 2008 and 18.5in high, this sold for U$66,811, beating the top estimate, in the Saffronart REDiscovery auction

Christie’s prices fell away sharply after the leading Mehta work. The next highest prices were for Woman at Work, a striking 20x20in oil on canvas by Husain that fetched U$300,000 (including premium), well above a top estimate of U$180,000, and Frightened Head, a typical Souza 30x20in oil on board (above) that went for U$250,000, matching the top estimate.

AstaGuru, which beat all the other auction houses with a $12.7 million sale in 2018, had more success with its top sales – six sold at hammer prices above U$390,000 led by Landscape, an early 36x23in oil on canvas by Akbar Padamsee, which sold for U$589,504 (plus 15 percent premium). That was followed by one of Raza’s Bindus at U$569,999 and a striking Souza, Yellow Buildings, at U$538,874.

The next big tests of the market will come in September when Sotheby’s, which first beat the Covid gloom in March with a U$4.82 million auction, has a live auction in London as well as an “affordables” online sale.

Saffronart has an auction room-based on-line auction in Mumbai, and Christie’s has an online auction of the deBoer collection (postponed from March). There is also to be an auction by Mumbai-based Pundole.

It seems that there is no shortage of buyers, providing the auction houses can continue to provide works that meet the demand with attractive estimates. That however is becoming more difficult as top works move into private collections and museums, making sourcing increasingly difficult.

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