Sotheby’s Appetite for Indian Art

Two trends emerged from Sotheby’s auction of contemporary and modern India art in London on Oct. 7, which achieved sales totaling £4.7 million. The top lot was Tyeb Mehta’s notable Blue Painting, with a bid of £930,000, 50 percent above the lowest estimate.

The first trend is that, in the current highly selective and uncertain market, freshness plus provenance produce good auction prices for India’s established modern masters and for earlier works that have not been trailing around the auction circuit and that have the cachet of being part of recognized collections.

These criteria produced astonishing prices for Kalighat paintings and also for other works including the Tyeb Mehta, though 24 of the 99 lots failed to reach their minimum sale price.

The second trend is that the slump in prices for contemporary works that were fashionable a few years ago is worsening. An oil on canvas painting of an airport luggage trolley by Delhi-based Subodh Gupta went for just £116,500 (US$187,000) including buyers’ premium. That was just above the top estimate but, allowing for inflation, it was far less than 10 percent of a record US$1.2 million achieved for a similar work in the heady days of 2008. It was also far less than half a $250,000 sale in 2010 immediately after the initial crash. Gupta is more famous for his installations of shiny pots and pans. Two paintings by his wife, Bharti Kher, failed to find buyers this week.

The most remarkable prices came for four sets of Kalighat watercolors on paper that originated with Bengal village painters who sat in the 1800s outside a Kali temple in Calcutta producing works for pilgrims. These works were collected by famous art historians and writers, William and Mildred Archer. William Archer was head of the Indian department at the V&A museum in London 60 years ago, andthe works (mostly around 17in x 10in) were found and brought to Sotheby’s by his son. Estimated at around £1,000-£1,500 a painting they were all bought by the same bidder for hammer prices of £6,000 to £8,000 each (plus 25% buyers’ premium).

There were good examples in this auction of works by members of the Bombay Progressives Group of the artists from the 1940s and 1950s, including F.N.Souza, M.H.Husain, S.H.Raza, Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta, though some works by all of them apart from Mehta did not sell, mainly because they did not pass the freshness test.

The star success after the Blue Painting was Akbar Padamsee’s oil on board, Prophet I, which fetched a hammer price nearly three-times the low estimate of £440,000 (£530,500 including buyers’ premium). Painted in 1952 when Padamsee was establishing himself in Paris along with Souza and Husain, this work was the first of his famous Prophet series. The work was sold in 1968 by its first owner to a collector in Brazil, so it has been out of circulation over 45 years and was one of several works in the auction from the same collector.

The 45 x 35 in Tyeb Mehta Blue Painting was acquired in 1992-93 by Masanori Fukuoka, a Japanese dealer and collector of Indian works that are kept in his Glenbarra museum in Japan.

The auction was one of three this week staged in London for the first time by Sotheby’s as an Indian and Islamic Week. This breaks the pattern of past years, when Sotheby’s has held its annual London auction in June at the same time as Christie’s, it’s main rival and the leader in the market.

An Art of Imperial India auction netted £1.78m and included an impressive collection of 31 albums of over 2,000 mid-late 1800s photographs from the collection of Sven Gahlin, an Indian art historian. Apart from eight individual photographs exhibited in London in 1983, none of the albums had been seen in public for over 40 years. There was also a collection of Indian miniatures from the Duke of Northumberland’s collection. An Arts of the Islamic World auction netted £6.59m.

The modern art auction was in line, among others, with two successes which produced bigger sales – one staged by Saffronart Art in Delhi last month which netted $6.38 million and one by Christies in Mumbai last December – its first in India. The next one to watch will be Christie’s return to Mumbai this December.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant, which appears at the bottom right hand corner of AS’s face page