It was never going to be easy for last week’s buoyant Sotheby’s and Saffronart modern South Asian art auctions to match up to the excitement of Christie’s Souza retrospective sale a few days earlier, but they certainly did well with prices which showed that the top end of the modern Indian art market is firmly on the rebound after the 2008-09 crash.
Sotheby’s scored with twelve rare offerings by Rabindranath Tagore and, together with Saffronart, made some notable sales of works by leading veterans, especially Syed Haidar Raza.
With many lots going well above modestly-priced estimates, Sotheby’s raised £5.5m ($7.9m, Rs375m) and Saffronart went to Rs300m ($6.7 million). Together with Christie’s two-day figure of £12.5m ($18.1m), this brought the total for June’s mainly-Indian sales by the three auction houses – two in London and one on-line – to £22.5m ($32.7m).
This was a considerable improvement on results achieved for India’s leading modern artists a year ago after prices had crashed in the previous year. The main buyers were serious collectors, along with leading galleries and dealers who expect prices to improve further.
In a bullish analysis of the three auctions published today ArtTactic , a London-based analysis firm, says that average auction prices (left) and volumes for modern Indian art “are now back to levels seen at the peak in June 2008”.
Prices had dropped 46%, and volumes 63%, between September 2008 and March 2009. Anders Peterson, who runs the firm, adds that “the return in confidence is at the high end of the market.”
ArtTactic also sees a recovery in Indian contemporary art where average prices dropped 85%, though that was less evident on the auction floors. Previously popular contemporary artists such as Subodh Gupta and Jitish Kallat are still lagging far below 2007-08 prices.
The stars of the three auctions were Souza for the Christie’s auction and subsequent sales, Tagore for the interest and prices achieved for his mostly figurative and small works from the 1930s, and Raza who hit an all-India record price at Christie’s and then topped the bidding at both Sotheby’s (right) and Saffronart.
This makes Raza, with his brightly coloured reddish-orange works that appeal especially to Indian buyers, the most sought-after member of India’s 1950s Progressive group of artists. Also in the group are other big names such as Souza, M.F.Husain and Tyeb Mehta.
The twelve paper works by Tagore, a renowned poet and philosopher as well as an artist, who died in 1941, were special because he is one of nine “national treasure” artists whose paintings are not allowed to leave India, so are rarely available abroad. This collection had been held by the UK’s Dartington Hall Trust since it was received as a gift from Tagore in 1939, and it was being sold by the trust to raise funds.
Inevitably there was a rather sanctimonious furore and media frenzy in India before the auction, with the government being urged to buy the works so that they could return home – except of course that India never was their home because they were painted and gifted in the UK. But the extensive publicity was good both for Sotheby’s and Dartington, because the twelve realised £1.6m (including buyer’s premium), with most of the lots going for three or four times top estimates.
Two of the works did even better and exceeded estimates six-seven times. Possibly the most appealing lot (top)– described by experts as a typical (13x9in) Tagore face and eyes – went for a hammer price of £185,000 (£223,250 including premium) against an estimate of just £25,000-£30,000.
The highest bid of £260,000 (£313,250 including premium) was a Tagore auction record and went for a 20x16in work (left) that had been estimated at £30,000-£40,000.
These were not just records for Tagore; they also set new records for any Indian works on paper of this size, says Siddhartha Tagore, owner of Delhi’s Art Konsult gallery and a great grand-nephew of the artist.
The buyers, both at the auction and bidding anonymously by phone, included two Bangladeshi and one Pakistani collectors, and a London-based Indian cardiologist, Abhijit Lahiri, who was in the hall and bought at least one lot. When pressured by reporters, Lahiri said he might take his collection to India one day – but not yet!
Vikram Bachhawat, who runs Kolkata’s Aakriti gallery and an auction house, says that most India-based collectors would have been reluctant to buy because of customs and other regulatory complications involved in bringing such categories of art back into the country.
Ten of the lots totalling Rs42m ($934,272) in the Saffronart auction were sold using the on-line auction house’s mobile phone system, via iPhones and Blackberrys. They included a $235,750 Husain. Saffronart says this is the world’s only live mobile bidding run by a major art auction house.
As has been happening for the past year or so, the results show however that not all famous artists’ works do well. For example, a few Husain’s and Souza’s did not sell in these auctions – including, perhaps surprisingly, a rather striking 48x47in acrylic on board (above) by Husain, depicting human and animal figures, that Saffronart estimated at around $180,000-$200,000.
Illustrating the slump in contemporary prices, an untitled 67x90in oil on canvas by Subodh Gupta of an airport luggage trolley (right) fetched only £180,000 ($250,000) at Sotheby’s, which is about a fifth of his record price paid for a very similar trolley in 2008.
But he did better in the Saffronart sale, where a possibly more socially-conscious similarly sized study (below) of hardworking doodwhalas – cycle milk sellers – doubled top estimates to fetch $494,500m (Rs2.2m) including premium.
“Auctions are now a filtered version of the reality in the art market,” says ArtTactic’s Peterson. “Lots that are likely to sell are works of high quality, rarity and outstanding provenance. Works that do not demonstrate these qualities are still selling at lower prices or not at all. Therefore the return in confidence is at the high end of the market.”