Posted by: John Elliott | June 12, 2012

Christie’s lifts Sotheby’s-led gloom on Indian art market

LONDON: Congratulations tinged with relief was the message being given by dealers and collectors at the end of Christie’s South Asian modern art auction here yesterday to the event’s main organizers, Hugo Weihe and Yamini Mehta.

Congratulations because, given the current climate of declining sales, the auction of some 112 lots had done well realising £4.1m ($6.38m) including buyers’ premium, with only about 15 lots not sold. Relief because the art market can now push aside a disastrous sale at Sotheby’s last Thursday.

Exceeding its own poor results in London last year, Sotheby’s produced sales of only £546,800 on June 8, which totalled just 26% of the total £2.1m low estimates. Out of 88 lots offered, 51 failed to find buyers.

Bonhams, which is a much smaller player in this market, scored a day earlier with sales of £1.1m, and only 21 unsold lots out of 71. It also established its own record price for an Indian work.

Christie’s achieved a 72% market share against its two competitors with its auction, where buying seemed to be dominated by telephone and internet bidders with only a handful of buyers in the auction room.

Its top sale was a magnificent Tyeb Mehta depiction of Mahishasura (above), based on a Hindu legend of a demon-king and a she-buffalo producing a son. It went for its lowest estimate of £1.2m (£1.38m – $2.15m with buyer’s premium) to a buyer named in the sales list as an “Asian Institution” but actually, I understand, leading collector Kiran Nadar for her Delhi (Noida) art museum.

That was a satisfactory result and it continued Christie’s domination of the artist’s work at auctions since he died in 2009. It showed that Mehta, who was less prolific than most other members of India’s Progressive Group of painters, is maintaining good prices, though it was far short of both the £1.8m bid that had been hoped for, and Mehta’s record £1.97m (including premium) achieved at the same auction last year.

After the last round of Indian art’s international auctions in March, ArtTactic, an analysis firm, said the market was experiencing another season of decline, with $10.4m total sales down 9% from last September and 27% below March last year. That followed a steady decline in the previous two years after the collapse of  a 2006-08 boom. It does not seem to have changed in the past few days with the three auction houses’ sales totalling £5.74m ($8.88m).

The auctions have coincided with the death a year ago of M.F.Husain, the doyen and probably the most prolific of India’s Progressives. His works produce mixed results because of their vast number and because they vary widely in quality, especially in later years. Several fail to find buyers in most auctions. At Christie’s yesterday, the highest priced Husain, Cinq Sens, depicting an iconic horse and male nude painted in 1958, failed to find a buyer with a top bid of £280,000 on an estimate of £400,000-500,000. Three others also failed, but a colourful rural group from the 1960s (above) was among six that sold and went for a £78,000 bid (£94,850 – $147,492 with premium).

Cinq Sens’ problem may have been that it was coming back to the market just two years after it was sold at Sotheby’s in New York for $782,000 (approx £480,000), which experts say is too quick for the current market unless prices are lowered.

Sotheby’s had the same problem last week with another Indian modern master, F.N.Souza, when it offered a stunning Woman with Mirror and Flowers (right) on an estimate of £180,000-220,000 that was roughly the same as Christie’s failed to achieve two years ago. Sotheby’s also failed to find buyers for its other two top priced works, one by Husain and the other a £300,000-400,000 work by Sayed Haidar Raza.

The Raza was priced unrealistically high, and was a rare failure for the veteran artist who has been celebrating his 90th birthday this year with good auction results and several exhibitions, one of which is on this month at the Grosvenor Vadehra Gallery in London.

Eleven Raza’s sold in Christie’s yesterday, though some went below estimates, as did others in the auction, suggesting that sellers might have been advised to lower their expectations after the Sotheby’s debacle. The top Raza went for £400,000 (£481,250 – $748,344 with premium) to a buyer who also bought a smaller work (bottom) for $70,000.

The most dramatic was Crucifixion (above) from Raza’s early days before he focused on abstract shapes. It far exceeded a £40,000-60,000 estimate and was sold on a £85,000 bid (£103,250 – $160,554 with premium) to Kiran Nadar who bought the Tyeb Mehta.

Bonhams’ star sale was Vespers by Jehangir Sabavala, (left), a 48in x 36in oil on canvas, which had been estimated at £100,000-150,000 but led to competitive bidding by two buyers. It went for £210,000 (£253,650 with premium) – a world record for an Indian work at Bonhams.

The contemporary art market has been hit far more severely than the moderns in the past three years with auction prices for some artists such as Subodh Gupta dropping by as much as 80%.

Anders Petterson of Art Tactic warns that, with contemporary artists from other regional markets such as China, Southeast Asia and Middle East maintaining or increasing their auction presence since 2008, Indian contemporary artists “risk losing their voice in the international art auction market”. He says that the “diminishing market share for Indian contemporary art has created a vicious circle, affecting the perception of Indian contemporary artists and their position in the global market”.

That has led auctions to focus on the Progressives at the top end of the price ranges and on other modern figurative and abstract artists. The lesson of the latest auctions is that top prices are only achievable for quality works. However, persuading collectors to offer works for sale when prices are not generally good is difficult, and successful auctions need the wide-ranging contacts and tracking skills that Christie’s clearly has, along with Bonhams especially for Pakistani art.

Some dealers say Sotheby’s has better works at better prices lined up for New York’s November auctions. Meanwhile, the next tests of the market will be a Mumbai-based Saffronart on-line auction on June 19-20, with works estimated up to $700,000, and an auction focussed on south India art by Osian’s, a Mumbai and Delhi-based auction house, in Mumbai on June 21.

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