LONDON June 10 ’09: Christie’s had a good and lively South Asian art auction in London today, with £2.43m (US$3.96m) sales – about 80% of the total 97 lots and 90% of their total estimated value, with buyers from New York, Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore, as well as London.
A 35x75in M.F.Husain oil on canvas (below), painted 1960 in his Ragamala series, fetched the top hammer price of £330,000 (approx US$539,000 or Rs26m), though that was substantially less than the £400,000-£600,000 estimate. Other Husain’s went well – with the veteran artist watching happily from the back of the auction room.
Further June 10 updates are in italics below
LONDON June 9 ’09: An art auctioneer needs to persuade people to offer high grade pictures for sale, and then has to make the price and quality range attractive to pull in potential buyers.
That may sound a blindingly obvious statement, but it wasn’t true of modern and contemporary Indian art auctions a year ago, and certainly not two or three years ago. Hordes of buyers – mostly Indians living abroad (NRIs), and some at home – were then rushing, herd-like, chasing escalating prices to buy almost any available slice of fashionable Indian art that would enable them to display their wealth on the walls of their homes and offices. Profit-seeking sellers were happy, and prices rose to unsustainable levels, often with little regard for quality.
Now the international art market has slumped along with the economic crisis, and Christie’s and Sotheby’s are pitching low rather than high in their price ranges and forecasts for current London auctions – Christie’s June 10, and Sotheby’s next week – also Mumbai-based Saffronart with an on-line auction this week.
They are all hoping that the best works will get very good prices at the top end of the market, as happened with contemporary Chinese art at recent auctions in Hong Kong, and that low prices will pull in new buyers.
“It’s very hard to get good works,” Hugo Weihe, Christie’s Asian art director, told me yesterday, though he was much more confident after the auction: “This shows there is a serious discriminating market and people who will buy,” he said
Some works come from unlikely sources. Two F.N.Souza paintings in Christie’s auction have come from owners who had absolutely no idea of their value. Portrait of an Elder (right), a 30inx23in oil on board, sold for £30,000 – the estimate was £30,000-£60,000 . One owner was alerted by a Souza being shown recently on Britain’s Antiques Roadshow tv programme.
Weihe is optimistic that new collectors will come in, along with buyers from India who are visiting Europe for the summer. Christies had Usha Mittal, wife of steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, as the co-host for their private view last night, hoping the couple would entice big spenders from the top end of London’s Indian community. Last year Tina Ambani, wife of Anil Ambani, who runs one of India’s two Reliance groups, was the draw with works from her Harmony Art collection and charity
Sotheby’s is more restrained in its publicity, relying on exclusive lunches for its most promising buyers.
Zara Porter Hill, the India and S.E.Asia director, is convinced she has a major draw with Day Dreaming, (above) a magnificent largish (about 5ft x 6ft) Jogen Chowdhury ink and pastel on paper, lacquered, of a reclining female figure. Estimated at £80,000-120,000 (US$118,000-177,000), it is way below Chowdhury’s record (hammer) price of Rs14m (around $300,000) , which was four times estimates and was achieved in the hey days of mid-2006 for a 4ftx4ft oil on canvas.
All three auction houses are having to cope with dramatic falls in prices of 40% upwards over the past year. Results from a survey last month (May) by ArtTactic, a London-based art analysis firm, showed that average auction prices for modern Indian art have fallen by just over 30% since March last year, while contemporary art fell more than twice as much at just over 70%.
Buyers are said to be looking for established modern artists with “proven historical value” such as V.S.Gaitonde, M.F.Husain, F.N.Souza and Akbar Padamsee. All these artists figure in the current auctions but, in the past year or so, only their best works have done well. Several Souzas and Husains for example did not sell at Christies in London last year..
ArtTactic’s overall confidence indicator for Indian art has fallen 71% since May last year. Just over a third of respondents said modern Indian art would rebound in one to two years, and 50% estimated it would take two to five years. A higher proportion – 66% – thought contemporary art would take two to five years and almost a fifth said five to ten years..
Subodh Gupta, one of India’s leading contemporary artists, has a 8ft high pile of stainless steel pails at Christie’s (left) marked at £70,000-£100,000 and it sold for £82,000 ($134,000), but he got £600,000 (then $1.2m) for a large installation of stainless steel kitchen pots and pans at the same auction last year. His paintings have dropped dramatically from approaching $1m to $200,000 at successive auctions
Both London auctioneers have cut the number of works from around 110-120 last June to around 90, and are putting conservative estimates on many works.
A third of the Christie’s works, which also include paintings from Pakistan and Sri Lanka, are estimated at up to just £5,000 ($8,000), and only 18 works are above £50,000.
Sotheby’s are in broadly similar ranges, and there are only 50 modern and contemporary works – including an untitled 67inx61in water-colour and acrylic on paper (left) by Prajakta Palav, a young Mumbai artist, in the low price range at £2,500-£3,500. The rest are Indian miniature paintings from the 1700’s and 1800’s.
Neither gallery is pushing works above £200,000 ($300,000), so there are none in the million-dollar-plus range seen last June when works by Gupta Tyeb Mehta, and Souza hit personal records from $1.2m to over $2m at the Christie’s London auction.