Christie’s in Bombay: first sale…

[24 Dec 2013]


On 19 December 2013, Christie’s opened a new chapter in its history with its first auction sale in India (Bombay). Although the Indian market is clearly promising, the multinational auction firm has made bold move by being the first international auction company to organise a sale in the country, paving the way the way for future high-end art sales.

A number of well-known Indian artists have already earned their stripes at major sales in London and New York such as Bharti Kher, Raqib Shaw, Subodh Gupta, TV Santosh, all much in demand with Western collectors. The country’s art therefore has a high international profile, but India still lacks a dynamic domestic art market. Christie’s strength is partly based on work done in situ since the establishment of its Indian branch in the 1990s and partly on existing local and international demand. So for its first sale it was essential to offer works by the most established and most international signatures of Indian art, and indeed among the 83 lots offered, there were two star lots with 7-figure estimates (in dollars), one by Tyeb Mehta and the other by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde.

The famous Modern artist Tyeb MEHTA, who died in 2009, is perhaps the best example of the rapid emergence of Modern Indian art on the international market. When his paintings were first offered at auction by Christie’s and Sotheby’s in 1995, they fetched on average between $4,000 and $13,000. In 2000 the artist’s work crossed the $50,000 threshold and on 19 September 2002 he became the most modern expensive Indian Modern artist in an international sale after a large triptych entitled Celebration fetched $280,000 at Christie’s New York. That result triggered a major boom in Indian art and Mehta emerged as one of its most glorious representatives. Demand for his work rocketed and his price index gained almost 1,700% in 10 years! No less than 14 of his works sold above the million-dollar line between 2005 and 2012, all in London and New York, except for one, which sold in Calcutta (Kali – III fetched the equivalent of $1,000,800 on 23 February 2008 at Emami Chisel Art 208 Pvt.Ltd.). Last week Christie’s Bombay added two more 7-figure results to the artist’s scorebook with Mahishasura (1994), the star lot of the 19 December sale, fetching $3,165,200 including fees, and Untitled (Falling Figure), fetching $1.578 million.

Vasudeo. S. GAITONDE also made his auction debut in 1995 in New York, with paintings that initially fetched between $14,000 and $16,000, which is approximately what his lithographs sell for nowadays (his most recent lithograph put up for auction fetched nearly $15,000 (£9,500) excluding fees at Christie’s London (11 June 2013). Guided by an uncompromising metaphysics of art, Gaitonde also integrated the colour fields painted by the American Abstract Expressionists and conceptual artists during the several years he spent in New York in the 1960s. His cross-cultural work is therefore equally important for Asian and Western collectors. For Bombay sale, Christie’s relied heavily on a 1979 Gaitonde canvas that it estimated at $1,04m -$1.3m, hoping to establish a new record for the artist whose previous auction record stood at $1.3m (for an untitled canvas from 1975 sold at Christie’s New York on 30 March 2006). The gamble paid off with a result that doubled the high estimate (Untitled (1979)): $3,792,400 including fees.

The 19 December sale also offered no less than 14 works by Maqbool Fida HUSAIN, one of the founders of the Progressive Artists Group with Francis Newton Souza and SH Raza, a movement that aimed to open Indian artists to the international avant-garde. These three artists are the mainstays of Modern Indian art and are as important as Picasso and Monet are for Western Impressionist & Modern sales. In order to reach the widest possible audience, Christie’s included Husain signatures in the form of prints available for less than $2,000, drawings offered for between 2,000 and $10,000 on average, paintings on canvas starting at $40,000 and up to more than $300,000. However the highest price fetched by Husain on December 19 was $243,600 (including fees) for a 1960 work entitled (Periyar (Kerala) which doubled its estimate.

Alongside these solid traditional signatures of Indian Modern art, the sale also included a rarity in the form of an oil on canvas by Amrita SHER-GIL, considered the mother of Indian Modernism despite a very short career (she died aged 28 leaving behind a very small portfolio of work). The 1932 canvas offered by Christie’s, Untitled (Hungarian Village Church) sold for $579,600 including fees. Under the 1972 Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, which prohibits the export of Indian works, the painting must remain on Indian soil.

Christie’s pre-sale estimates for its Art of Southeast Asia sale on19 December sale amounted to $6 -8 million. In total, the sale generated twice that range with $15.455 million, a promising start for the auctioneer proving that demand is indeed high: 98% of the lots found buyers.