India’s most prominent philanthropic collector is Kiran Nadar, who has two museums in Delhi and staged the Arpita Singh exhibition that is open for six months (video of the works and opening here). There are 109 oil paintings, watercolors, works on paper and sketchbooks on showing, as one writer has put it, Singh’s “carnival of images arranged in a curiously subversive manner” with an artistic approach described “as an expedition without destination”.
This was the first retrospective of an artist who hit the headline in December 2010 when one of her works, Wish Dream, was sold in a Saffronart on-line auction for USUS$2.24m, which was the highest price achieved by an Indian woman artist at auction and a world record price for an artwork sold online. Since then there has been a steady flow of Singh’s works in auctions but no spectacular sales. Experts suggest that is partly because owners have been seeking unrealistically high estimates and reserve prices, while auction houses have not been willing to risk reserves not being met.
Girls by Arpita Singh at the Kiran Nadar museum
That might now change, following the interest generated by Kiran Nadar’s show. It will be worth watching to see whether Arpita Singh now gains the same popularity in auctions that happened to Bhupen Khakhar, a provocative gay artist, after his retrospective three years ago in London’s Tate Modern gallery.
Most galleries are shy of revealing their sales, but there have been various positive reports from this year’s fair. Foreign galleries have had mixed results in past years, but the New York-based David Zwirner, which has branches in London and Hong Kong, was showing for a second year and said relationships it had built with Indian collectors had “really paid off.” Strong sales included a work by the Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama bought by a “major India collector”, as well works by other artists new to the Indian market. Zwirner also has a work in the sculpture park.
A poster in the DAG’s Red Fort galleries
Prajit Datta from the Aicon Art in New York said works had been sold by five of its seven artists on show. They included a sculptures by Rasheed Araeen, an influential British-Pakistani artist, and by the Algerian- French Rachid Koraichi, both of whom are collected by the Kiran Nadar museum.
Delhi’s Vadehra and Dhoomimal galleries reported sales ranging between USUS$2,000 and USUS$140,000, while Chatterjee & Lal from Mumbai put theirs at USUS$2,800 to USUS$42,000.
With so much activity, it may seem odd for the fair to be up for sale, but the MCH Group of Switzerland, which runs the internationally famous Art Basel fairs in Basel, Miami and Hong Kong, decided last November to cut back its activities and abandon plans for a string of regional art fairs after it was hit by a fiasco at its key watches fair.
Mahbubur Rahman’s Transformation in the Madhavendra Palace Sculpture Park
It is selling the 65 percent controlling interest in the India fair that it started buying in 2016. Angus Montgomery Arts, a UK-based exhibition and events company that has been involved since 2011, has a 35 percent stake, which it says it is interested in expanding. Other rumored potential Indian and international bidders for the 65 percent include Sunil Munjal of the India’s Hero auto industry family, who runs the annual Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. Galleries and auction houses are being excluded.
MCH appointed a new CEO this week who will finalize valuations and a timetable. The group is being criticized by people involved in the fair for its inconsistency as an investor, and for bringing uncertainty to the event, though MCH says it will remain committed till a sale is agreed. It is credited with having sharpened the focus and raised the standards of exhibits under a new director, Jagdip Jagpal, who took over last year.
Whoever buys control will inherit a fair that is now well established, though the limited participation by foreign galleries – there were only 15 out of the 75 – shows that it is not yet fully recognized on the international art circuit. Aside from that, its real value is the way that important events are expanding on the fringe, broadening the opportunities for those with no knowledge or experience to view the best the art can offer.
John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.