It looks as if the top end of the Indian modern and contemporary art market is wobbling. Recent auctions in London and on-line have shown mixed results, with works by recognised modern masters such as M.F.Husain, who died earlier this month, and F.N.Souza sometimes not selling well, while demand for Subodh Gupta, an Indian contemporary poster boy, has slumped.
On the other hand, Tyeb Mehta, a top member of the Husain and Souza-led Progressives’ group, hit a record sale price of £1.97m ($3.24m) including buyers’ premium at Christie’s in London earlier this month for an untitled figure on rickshaw (left), and also did well elsewhere.
A different sort of record was set last week by Mehta with Kali (below), which received a bid of $1m (on its way to a $1.31m sale) through a mobile-phone bidding application on Mumbai-based Saffronart’s on-line auction. Bids (successful and unsuccessful) totalling $3.86m were received on this mobile route, which Saffronart says is unique among leading auction houses.
Saffronart also reports new Indian buyers are emerging for works in the lower ranges around $150,000. Higher up the price ladder however, the news is not so good. Indian modern and contemporary art boomed in the early and mid-2000s, then slumped and began to recover two years ago.
Art Tactic, a London-based analysis firm, says that auction houses responded to disappointing results in this year’s March auctions by lowering estimates “to try to re-ignite buyer interest”. However the market is now moving on a “negative trend as other global markets are on the rise”, and the London auctions came in 21% below estimates and 18% below the March results.
This underlines the fact that, despite its earlier boom, Indian art has never captured China’s level of international attention. A China record of $10.2m, more than three times India’s highest-ever price, was paid at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction in April for a three-panelled (triptych), Forever Lasting Love (below), by Zhang Xiaogang, a top contemporary mainland Chinese artist.
By contrast, Subodh Gupta, who leapt to the forefront of Indian contemporary artists in the mid 2000s with paintings and installations of shiny pots and pans and other apparent aspects of modern Indian life, has not done well. Last year in London an untitled 67x90in oil on canvas of an airport luggage trolley fetched only £180,000 ($250,000) at Sotheby’s, which was about a fifth of a 2008 price for a very similar trolley.
This year at Sotheby’s there were no bidders for a vast 16ftx12ft Gupta installation of stainless steel pails (estimated at £300,000-£400,000). An oil painting of saucepans pitched around last year’s trolley price also failed to sell. Two more works did not get buyers at Christie’s, while Saffronart wisely did not include him. Other Indian contemporaries however did better. A large Atul Dodiya painting of the artist’s father in Dodiya’s early photo-realist style fetched £265,250 at Christie’s. Jitish Kallat also sold at Christies and Sotheby’s but failed with one work at Saffronart
Buyers have been nervous about India’s contemporary artists since the end of the boom and Art Tactic says that about half the works offered at Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Saffronart failed to sell.
The main recovery has been among the moderns, with India’s record price of £2.4m ($3.5m) being achieved by Syed Haidar Raza, another leading veteran Progressive, at Christie’s in London last year. It is here that warning signs are emerging, with top names such as Raza, Souza and Husain sometimes failing to sell for works that are either not regarded as being an artist’s best or are over-priced. Prices for Husain, who died on June 9, the day of the Christie’s auction, are likely to be tested in New York auctions in September.
Hugo Weihe, who runs the Christie’s auctions, says that the results shows that it is “necessary to get the quality and the price right to achieve sales”. That of course is the usual line from auction houses when faced with mixed results, but it does look as if it is apt in the current market. Dealers talk about difficulty finding and persuading buyers to offer good works that will fetch top prices, partly because many have already been sold in recent years, and because of current economic uncertainty, especially in India with high inflation and a threatened slow-down in growth.
The market has been flooded with works by Husain and Souza in recent years, which has affected demand. Last summer, Christie’s had a spectacular sale of Souza drawings and paintings that were being sold by his family’s estate. This year there were more works owned by the family, but they did not generate the same excitement or prices.
A splendid but somewhat over-priced Souza 1958 landscape (right) reached only £280,000 against a £300,000-500,000 estimate, but a pair of doors with his works inlaid as panels sold for £80,000, which was the bottom end of the price range.
Tyeb Mehta, who died in 2009, continues however to score well, partly because his works are so distinctive, often reflecting with strong shapes and colours the hard life of India’s poor, and partly because he was not nearly so prolific as other Progressives. In addition to the Christie’s record price for a rickshaw puller reclining on his handcart, and Saffronart’s fierce green Kali, Christie’s sold an untitled figure after the auction for a price near the bottom estimate of £180,000 ($280,000).
This is not a market for investors looking for quick profits, but it is good for committed collectors, newcomers and established buyers, with the best works selling well if offered at sensible prices. The market is waiting to discover what happens now to Husain – there are many of his works waiting to be sold but it is not clear yet when they will emerge, nor what the appetite will be.