Sotheby’s Beats Virus with Successful New York Sale

Christie’s cancels three auctions as New York closes down

By: John Elliott

Sotheby’s seemingly odd decision to go ahead with its annual New York auction of South Asian art in the face of the coronavirus crisis on March 16 after Christie’s cancelled its own sales was more than vindicated by highly successful results. Good prices were achieved for the best works, including four world records, one by Nasreen Mohamedi, a respected abstract artist.

Starting not long after trading on Wall Street was paused because of dramatic falls in stock prices, the auction totaled US$4.82 million (including buyers’ premium). Only seven of the 79 works failed to find a buyer. That was good news for Sotheby’s, which has had some poor South Asian art auctions including one in Mumbai last November when important lots failed to sell.

The highest price yesterday was achieved for a stylish 50 x 33in untitled oil on canvas by V.S. Gaitonde (above) with a winning US$1.5 million bid that matched the top estimate. Gaitonde was a member of the prominent group of modernist Progressives that began in the mid-20th century.

There was an unusually large clutch of four or five bidders (on the phone) for the abstract work, which sources say went to an Indian American collector for US$1.82 million including the premium.

The same collector (the paddle number was the same) bought a 47 x 35in oil on canvas board by Nasreen Mohamedi (above) at a record auction price of US$437,500 including the premium (US$350,000 hammer). This beat the artist’s previous record of US$363,636 that was achieved at a Saffronart evening sale in September 2016.

Mohamedi, who rarely makes auction headlines, was born in Karachi in 1937 and lived in India till her death in 1990. She shared a studio with Gaitonde and their two works in the auction, both painted in 1963, have an intriguing similar sensibility.

Best known for her line drawings, she produced only a relatively few canvas paintings. Arguably, seeing her paintings and Gaitonde’s together, she is under-valued. “It’s especially significant that Nasreen should make a record sale at a time like this,” said one potential bidder.

The auction began unusually strongly with a 26 x 24in wood collage on board (above) by Zarina (Hashmi), an 83-year old Indian artist living in the US who is known professionally by her first name. The work fetched a hammer price of US$70,000, nearly three times the top estimate – US$87,500 including buyer’s premium.

Sotheby’s probably went ahead, despite the escalating coronavirus gloom, because preparations were too far advanced to be halted. Bidders were making absentee offers over the weekend, which could have made it hard to halt the sale. Reserve prices were lowered, according to market sources, and a major effort was made to attract bidders.

There were only a few people in the auction room, but there was strong bidding by telephone and online, attracted by keen prices and strong provenance of previous owners and galleries.

When I asked Hugo Weihe, who used to head Christie’s South Asia sales and has also been CEO of Saffronart, the market leader, why the results were so good at a time of a global melt-down, he replied: “It was mostly a function of the quality of the material, the market remains smart that way”.

“It was a good market – there’s plenty of money out there,” said Conor Macklin, who runs the India-linked Grosvenor Gallery in London’s Mayfair.

Dinesh Vazirani, co-founder of Saffronart, took it a stage further and wondered “if people are looking to acquire long-term assets at a time of such uncertainty”.

Christie’s South Asian auctions were scheduled for tomorrow (March 18), so it had more time than Sotheby’s to pull down the shutters, in line with the auction house’s other New York sales.

There were to be three auctions, two of them offering about 150 works collected since the mid-1990s by Kito and Jane de Boer.

Now based in Dubai and London, the de Boers started collecting when Kito de Boer worked for McKinsey in Delhi. Advertised as Christie’s “largest and most important single-owner sale” of South Asian art for several years, the auctions will be revived when the virus crisis is over.

Also running last weekend was a smaller on line auction by Dubai-based Artiana, which sold 36 out of 40 works for a total of US$1.47m, below the low estimate of US$1.70m.

More headlines were generated earlier by Saffronart auctions of art and other luxury items, including a Rolls-Royce Ghost saloon, owned by Nirav Modi, a billionaire diamond jeweler and trader. Modi is charged in India for alleged money laundering and corruption, and is now in London’s Wandsworth prison awaiting extradition proceedings.

Ordered by India’s Enforcement Directorate, the auctions (online on March 3-4 and live in Mumbai on March 5) yielded US$8.55 million including the premium, with all 112 lots being sold.

Modi was known in the art world for having sound knowledge and good taste when he was considering buying works. That was demonstrated when a world record of US$1.92 million including the premium (US$2.24m hammer) was achieved in the Saffronart auction for a work by M.F. Husain, a leading member of the Progressives group.

This was a striking 74 x 108in oil on canvas diptych, Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12, (above) with a strong provenance – Modi bought it in a Christie’s auction in 2008 for US$1.7 million, where it was being sold by Masanori Fukuoka, a prominent collector who owns the Glenbarra Museum in Japan.

The top price of US$2.24 million including the premium, was paid for Boys with Lemons, a 36 x 22in oil on canvas (above) by Amrita Sher-Gil that Modi acquired from the artist’s family. Both the Husain and Sher-Gil are thought to have been bought by a leading collector for her Delhi art museums.

The Rolls-Royce sold for twice its estimate at US$240,000. Last May, over US$8 million was raised for India’s tax revenue department when Saffronart auctioned other top works owned by Modi, achieving prices up to US$3.7 million.

There’s no chance of Sotheby’s sort of New York success, or Saffronart’s with Modi’s collection, being repeated till the coronavirus crisis eases. The results show however that good works new to the auction circuit and with sound provenance attract collectors and significant prices.

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