Posted by: John Elliott | March 30, 2018

Asta Guru of Mumbai beats Christie’s into second place for Indian auctions

Less elite entertaining and more focussed widespread marketing

Saffronart and Sotheby’s pushed into third and fourth place

There is a new kid on the block in the world of Indian modern art auctions and it’s beating the market leaders. It is Mumbai-based Asta Guru, which took the market by storm this week with a two-day on-line auction that yielded total sales of Rs89.16 crore. This beat other international and Indian auction houses in the current season and was the second highest ever after a Christie’s Rs97.65 crore ($14.7m) result in Mumbai in December 2015.

The auction yielded two record prices, including one for a work by a well known but not top-selling Indian artist, Manjit Bawa, and it just missed a record for a work by Tyeb Mehta, one of the most famous highly priced members of the mid-20th century Progressives “moderns” group.

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Manjit Bawa’s record-breaking  oil on canvas

The big surprise was that Asta Guru’s total (which the auction house calculated at $12.71m), was higher than Christie’s South Asian modern art auction in New York on March 21, which was seen as a substantial success with sales totalling $10.29m. This included a new record price for a monumental acrylic on canvas called Tapovan (below) by S.H.Raza, a leading member of the Progressives, at a hammer price of $3.7m ($4.45m including buyers premium).

That was also the highest figure ever paid for a modern or contemporary Indian artist. It beat Rs29.3 crore ($4.38m) including buyer’s premium on a hammer price of Rs25.5 crore that was achieved for a Vasudeo S. Gaitonde painting in the Christie’s Mumbai 2015 sale.

Third in line after Asta Guru and Christie’s came Saffronart, India’s better known auction house, which broke from its on-line base on March 13 with a live Mumbai auction that yielded Rs27.64 crore ($4.32m). Trailing further behind was Sotheby’s New York auction on March 19, which achieved just $2.79m, having been dragged down by a failure to sell two significant works by Raza that could have added $3m or more.

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Tyeb Mehta’s Bull

Another measure of Asta Guru’s success was that 15 of its works sold at or above $200,000, 13 of them above $300,000. By contrast, Christie’s had eight at or above $200,000 while Saffronart had five and Sotheby’s just one.

This showed Asta Guru is mining this potentially lucrative area at a time when auction houses are saying that the best results are being achieved at the top end and at much lower figures well below $100,000.

With Asta Guru’s website, it is easy to monitor an auction with access to lists of the most popular and the most highly priced works, as well as the general catalogue. As the auction closed on March 27 evening, I tracked bids (in dollars) on various lots. While most high priced works drew only three or maybe four bidders, some had more though, as happens in live auctions, the ultimate tussle at the end was between just two.

The top hammer price of Rs17.37 crore ($2.80m) – Rs19.98 crore including buyers premium – was achieved for a 70inx60in oil on canvas titled Bull (above) by Mehta. After two potential buyers dropped out after just one bid each, the battle was joined between paddle numbers 1701 and 1617 who pushed the hammer price with a total of seven bids from $2.09m at 8.35pm to 1617’s winning  $2.80m figure an hour later.

For the second highest priced work, a 55inx40in oil on canvas by Gaitonde that fetched Rs11.50 crore including buyers premium, there were only three bidders with just two bids on the final evening.

More exciting was the fourth highest but record-breaking priced work, Bawa’s  untitled 66inx78in oil on canvas (above) that attracted 21 bids. It started with eight bidders, but narrowed to two who pushed the hammer price from $453,903 to $898,698 in the final half hour, with 1617 (again) winning at Rs7.79 crore (double the estimate) including buyers premium. Bawa, who was born in 1941 and died in 2008, was 15-20 years younger than the leading Progressives and his works, though popular, rarely make such a prominent entry in auctions.

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Ganeshji by M.F. Husain

Another keen contest took place for 24inx30in acrylic on canvas painting of the elephant god Ganesh by M.F.Husain, one of the most widely known and prolific Progressives. This fetched 20 bids from three potential buyers with paddle 1617 losing out to 1699 after the hammer price rose from $90,031 to $159,495 – four times the average estimated value – in the final ten minutes.

Asta Guru is not actually new – it is ten years old, but it has only begun to emerge as a significant player in the last four or five years, growing at an annual rate of 55% according to Siddanth Shetty, the head of strategy. The family-owned group was started by Vikram Sethi, its chairman, who set up The Arts Trust in 1990 that later became an on-line art gallery known as the Institute of Contemporary Indian Art and a source of market analysis.

Its reputation in the trade is that it takes care to manage relationships with both sellers and collectors so that it can source the best works and attract buyers. Christie’s and the others of course say they do the same.

Tushar Sethi, the ceo, says that 80% of the auction buyers are based in India, with Mumbai being a major centre for clients, and that it has 2,500 registered potential bidders. Some 90% of its works are sourced from India, though it hopes to broaden its base later this year with a New York office, its first abroad.

Tapopvan SHRaza

S.H.Raza’s record breaking Tapovan

The strong India focus increases its competitiveness against the international galleries. Christie’s charges a 25% buyers’ premium on most works with 20% above $250,000 (and 12.5% above $4m).

Indian buyers importing works from Christie’s New York or London auctions have to pay the country’s new 12% general sales tax on top of 10% import duty, making a total of almost 50% (without including the cumulative effect of the three levels). Asta Guru charges a 15% buyers’ premium plus the GST, but without the import duty because most of its buyers are in India.

Sethi said it threw a large dinner event, its first, in the top end Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai for this auction, but it does not usually splash out on the sort of lavish entertaining done by other auction houses in Mumbai, Delhi, London and New York, nor does it transport works for pre-auction displays in other cities. Instead, it printed 9,000 copies of its 2cm thick catalogue, couriering them to potential buyers, and it communicates via Facebook where Sethi says it has 120,000 followers.

ArtTactic, a London-based analysis firm, reported in January that there was a swing from international to local auction houses with “moderns” art sales at Christies, Sotheby’s and Bonhams (which is a smaller player) being 22.5% lower than in 2016 than in 2017, while India’s Saffronart, AstaGuru and Pundole (also of Mumbai) more than made up for the loss. Asta Guru saw the highest percentage growth, almost doubling its total from 2016 and had become, said ArtTactic, the third largest auction house after Saffronart (which is also into jewellery auctions and property sales) and Christie’s, beating Sotheby’s and Bonhams.

In terms of their overall business, India’s South Asian art market is relatively small for the big galleries such as Christie’s, which started an annual Mumbai auction in 2013 but abandoned it after a flop in 2016. The market is however important for their prestige, and they hope gradually to persuade Indian buyers to become more interested in international art. For the future, Asta Guru’s result shows they will face increasing competition from the locals.

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