Indian Art Reaches Record Prices in Mumbai Auctions

Christie's World Art head William Robinson gestures as he auctions a painting by Indian artist Tyeb Mehtha at a Mumbai hotel during Christie's second auction in India, on December 11, 2014. Shailesh Andrade/Reuters

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant blog.

Christie's and Saffronart this week established Mumbai as an internationally significant center for Indian art auctions, with record prices being achieved not just for established modern artists, whose prices have been steadily climbing (three overall world records in the past three months), but also for classical miniature painting and sculptures that are now attracting new collectors.

On December 15, at the Christie's auction, an untitled 55- by 40-inch oil on canvas by Vasudeo Gaitonde, who died in 2001, was sold for a total of $4.4 million (Rs 29.3 crore on a hammer price of Rs 25.5 core). Well above the estimate of $1.9 million to $2.3 million, the $4.4 million was both a world auction record for the artist, beating an earlier $3.8 million (Rs 23.7 crore) record and the highest auction price achieved for any modern Indian work of art. It was bought by an international collector, who phoned from outside India in a keenly fought bidding contest.

The Christie's sale totaled $14.7 million (Rs 97.7 crore), the highest for any auction held in India, beating the previous record of $14.5 million (Rs 96.5 crore) that was set by the auction house at its first Indian sale two years ago. This is the result of a careful selection of works that have not been trailing round the auction circuit, backed by intensive international marketing and the buzz for an auction in Mumbai's waterfront Taj Mahal Palace hotel.

The night before, Saffronart which is the leading Indian auction house, staged its first sale of classical Indian art (which cannot be exported) and had the rare achievement of a 100 percent sale of the 70 lots on offer.

The overall sales total of $2.5 million (Rs 16.4 crore) included a record total price of $981,000 (Rs 6.5 crore), four times the estimates, that was paid, it is believed, by a Delhi collector for an elegant, 33-inch-high bronze statue of the Hindu goddess Parvati from the 15th to 16th century. (It came from the collection of a famous Mumbai architect.) Though it was below prices achieved abroad, Saffronart said this was the highest auction price paid in India for any classical work of art.

It was the result of persistent bidding by two collectors who, coaxed slowly in very small $5,000 steps by Hugo Weihe (Christie's former auctioneer for India sales and now with Saffronart), brought the hammer price up from Rs 4.5 crore, where it could have rested, to the final Rs 5.4 crore. Weihe later said it felt like the moment in 2005 when he brought the hammer down in New York on a $1.45 million bid for a Tyeb Mehta work, marking the beginning of a boom in auction prices for modern Indian art.

Saffronart also set a new international benchmark for Basohli miniature paintings that were done in the Himalayan foothills in the 1700s. Out of a set of four, two produced a new record Indian price for a Pahari (from the mountains) work of $145,455 (Rs 96 lakhs), each on a hammer price of Rs 80 lakhs.

In line with other recent auctions, these results show that good prices are being paid by serious collectors for the best works, especially for those with good provenance, a point that both auction houses stressed this week.

Saffronart's miniature paintings came from a famous collection made in the mid-1900s by a British army officer, Colonel R.K. Tandon, triggering rival claims of relative superior provenance virtues by Christie's, which had a classical section in its auction for the first time. This included miniature paintings from the collections of the maharajas of Bikaner in Rajasthan, with members of the family in the auction room, possibly marking a new departure for these families selling their old collections.

Until now, the main collectors of miniature paintings, especially Mughal works, which fetch higher prices, have been in the U.K. and U.S., plus the Middle East. They were buying and selling works that were taken abroad many years ago and thus were not affected by the current ban on the export of antiquities.

Indian collectors have been more rare. Specialists, however, believe that this now could be changing as Indian collectors of this modern art realize the attractiveness and prestige of the best miniatures and sculptures, many of which can be obtained for around $10,000. That is far less than they might pay for the best modern works and is also lower than prices being paid abroad.

Last week, Saffronart also had a successful sale of works on paper by F.N. Souza, one of the country's most famous artists, with 83 (98 percent) of the 85 lots on offer going for a total of $846,182 (Rs 5.6 crore). Peasants in Goa, an early (1947) 20- by 13-inch oil on paper, fetched the top price of $36,364 (Rs 24 lakhs).

The Christie's auction was slightly blighted by an allegation from a Dubai gallery owner that two works—including a major one, Bindu by Syed Haider Raza, that was estimated to fetch up to $2.3 million (Rs 15 crore)—were not genuine. Christie's rejected the allegation and said Raza himself had recently been photographed with the work at a preview of the sale. Bidding, however, stopped at Rs 7.5 crore, which was below the reserve price, so the work did not sell.

The previous record price for Indian modern art was paid achieved at a Christie's auction in New York in September, when $3.5 million ($4 million including the buyer's premium) was bid for Birth, a monumental 8- by 4-foot oil on board by Souza. The previous record price of $2.6 million for a work by Souza, who died in 2002, was set just a week earlier at a Saffronart auction in Delhi. His 5- by 4-foot Man and Woman Laughing went for a hammer price of $2.2 million (Rs 14.6 crore) to $2.6 million (Rs 16.8 crore), including the premium.

Taken together these results, with high prices for the top works and high percentages of total sales, confirm that collectors react to strong marketing by the auction houses and are willing to pay substantial prices for the best works.

John Elliott's latest book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India).