This article first appeared in a slightly different form on “FORTUNE” magazine’s website
LONDON: Anil Ambani hasn’t been seen in public much since his Mumbai-based Reliance Communications started negotiating to merge with MTN, the South African telecoms company last month. However, both he and Amitabh Jhunjhunwala, his group managing director and close adviser, have put in brief appearances at Christie’s art auction rooms in London during the past few days, where Tina Ambani, Anil’s wife, has been exhibiting.
Yesterday a selection of paintings collected by Tina Ambani’s Harmony Art Foundation formed part of a Christie’s auction of modern and contemporary South Asian art that netted £5.4m or $10.6m (including buyers’ premium).
Harmony stole the show by paying a record £1.27m ($2.5m) for “Birth” (above) by F.N.Souza – 56% higher than the previous record price for any modern Indian work. Souza, who died in 2002, was one of India’s greatest modern artists, along with others that include M.F.Husain and Tyeb Mehta.
“Birth” is a monumental (8ft by 4ft) painting that embraces many of Souza’s main themes of extravagant female nudes, gaunt male faces, still life, religion and townscapes. Christie’s put an estimate of $1.2-$1.6 million on the work, but Yamini Mehta, a specialist in Indian art at the auction house, refused to guess in advance what it might go for. “Putting a value on it is rather like trying to value the Mona Lisa” she said.
The buyer is listed by Christie’s as “anonymous”, but yesterday I saw Preeti Ambani, a cousin of Anil Ambani and president of the Harmony Art Foundation, make the successful bid at Christie’s King’s Road auction rooms in London .
A film star before her marriage, Tina Ambani is modest about her background in Indian art, even though her annual Harmony shows in Mumbai of younger as well as established artists have become well known over the past 12 years. “I am not academically well-versed in art but I go with instinct,” she told me.
Proceeds from six works that Harmony sold yesterday will go to help young artists. The objective of the Harmony foundation and its exhibitions, says Ambani, is to “provide centre stage for emerging artists.” Two projects include reviving old Warli tribal art in the Indian state of Maharashtra and fine Pichwai paintings in Rajasthan.
Two other records were also set at the auction. A Tyeb Mehta painting, part of a dramatic series he has done to mark the miseries of rickshaw pullers (left), went for £982,000 ($1.9m). That beat his previous record price of nearly $1.6m paid in a New York auction in 2005 for a work in his “Mahisasura” series.
India’s leading contemporary artist, Subodh Gupta, hit a personal record of £601,000 ($1.2m) for a large installation of stainless steel kitchen pots and pans (below). Last month, his painting of a man pulling an airport luggage trolley was auctioned by Christie’s for almost $1.2m in Hong Kong, which set a new record for India’s younger contemporary artists.
M.F.Husain, now aged 92 and the doyen of the Indian “progressive” painting group that started in the 1950s, also hit a record price recently for a monumental work, “Battle of Ganga and Jamuna.” This was sold for $1.6m in New York in March, beating Mehta’s 2005 figure and holding the India world record till yesterday.
These sales underline claims by Christie’s and other auction houses that Asian art is bucking the current economic gloom and recovering after some leveling off in prices last year. ArtTactic, which surveys the art market, said last month that, after a 38% drop in auction volume last year, the modern Indian art market was regaining some of the confidence it had lost.
Several other Husain and Souza paintings however did not do well in yesterday’s auction, along with those of another prominent “progressive”, Syed Haidar Raza. More than 15 of their works failed to meet reserve prices and were not sold, though Hugo Weihe, Christie’s international director for Asian art, says there is already interest in a key Raza work, “La Terre”, to be auctioned in London on June 30 for about $2m.
This shows that it is younger contemporary artists like Subodh Gupta, Atul Dodiya, T.V.Santosh, and Rameshwar Broota who are grabbing the attention of buyers at international auctions. Only the best works of the older modern artists are doing well, as buyers become more discerning.
Modern Indian art started to hit high prices about four or five years ago, driven by sales to overseas Indians (NRIs) who wanted to display their wealth and origins on the walls of their smart pads, usually in the U.S.A. There was little concern for quality. ”Every new collector wanted an Husain,” says Weihe.
It is no longer the NRIs who are driving the prices – even though yesterday’s Tyeb Mehta went to someone of Indian origin living in the U.S. Collectors of other nationalities are now moving in, along with art funds and museums, attracted partly by prices that are far below the $9m achieved by leading Chinese works. India’s growing visibility internationally in business and other areas is also helping to focus attention on what, in an article at the end of 2006 in London’s Royal Academy Magazine, I described as the latest manifestation of India’s ancient cultural heritage.
Buyers are coming from China and elsewhere in East Asia, as well as from Dubai, where Arab collectors are looking for new cultures, and Europe. In Britain, interest is growing. Charles Saatchi, famous for his advertising agency and as an art collector, is launching a new London (Chelsea) gallery this summer with an Indian contemporary exhibition titled “The Empire Strikes Back.” A large Manchester gallery is showing “A Passage to India”, and extravagant prices are being demanded by smaller galleries.
See 2009 articles on Indian art auctions and the market – more have followed since then.