John Elliott: Mehta's Rickshaw Woman Fetches $3.56 million

The Christie’s auction included three collections of smallish pencil and gouache on paper works by M.F.Husain – this collection fetched £22,000 Christie's

This article first appeared on the Riding The Elephant site.

Christie's yesterday scored at its annual early summer auction in London of South Asian modern art with sales totalling £5.9m ($7.66m) and over 90 percent of the 69 lots finding buyers.

This helped to rebuild the Christie's regional reputation after a poor auction result in Mumbai last December and a subsequent cost-cutting decision to stop holding a high profile annual event in the city.

The top result was a work by Tyeb Mehta, one of India's most famous and successful artists of the 20th century, whose 59in x 39in untitled oil on canvas depicting a woman on a rickshaw was bought by a leading collector from India with a hammer price of £2.3m. Mehta often focused on social issues, saying "the rickshaw is not a simple means of transport, but a sign of bondage".

That £2.3m comfortably exceeded the top £2m estimate and, with a total (pre tax) price of £2.74m ($3.56m, Rs19 crore) including buyers' premium, set a new world auction record for the artist, beating his previous high of £1.97m ($3.24m) set in 2011.

A total of 14 lots sold above $100,000, but there was nothing apart from the Tyeb Mehta above £300,000. This illustrated the problem that auction houses face finding works that are fresh to the market.

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Some auctions did badly two or three years ago because they were recycling works from trade sources, and that led to the current focus on new collections. Christie's and other auction houses are also tempting bidders by trimming over-ambitious pricing and are accepting bids that are lower then low estimates.

"The auction saw one of the highest rates of participation from new clients in the past years, which is likely related to the fact that the majority of works offered were hitherto unseen on the auction market and consigned from important private collectors," said Sonal Singh, Mumbai-based director, Christie's India.

Painted in 1994, the Tyeb Mehta had been in an Indian collection and was being auctioned for the first time. Another of his works, Thrown Bull , that sold for £245,000, had been hidden away for many years in Oxford University's Nuffield College, being passed from room to room by those studying there.

A rare work by F.N.Souza, another leading artist from Mehta's generation, has been sourced from South America for an online auction being staged between June 6 and 7 by Mumbai based Saffronart.

Titled The Herald , this 48in x 23in oil on canvas dates from the early 1960s when the artist often focused on Roman Catholic subjects. Having been owned by a South American collector for decades, it will be facing its first auction and has been given a broad $300,000-$500,000 estimate to test the market.

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Christie's decision to abandon its annual Mumbai auction after only three years and focus instead of two South Asian actions a year in New York and one in London was part of a slimming down of the auction house's international operations, which are increasingly focused on the Chinese market. It is closing one of its London auction locations (in Old Brompton Road) and reducing its activities in Amsterdam. A market rumour suggests that François Pinault, the French luxury goods magnate who owns the auction house, is readying it for sale to a Chinese buyer.

It is also increasing its online sales for lower-priced works. This week its annual Arts of India antiquities auction, which yielded £1.7m, was accompanied by online auction called Painting the Maharaja of 32 mostly 19 th century portraits that sold for a total of nearly £128,000.

Part of the pressure on Christie's and others to find new works stems from an increasing number of auctions run by Indian businesses.

That is in addition to Sotheby's, which had a highly successful South Asian New York sale two months ago totalling $6.56m with only four of the 59 lots not being sold.

Most of Sotheby's works were sourced privately from European and American collections, and works by M.F.Husain, another of the Mehta and Souza generation, did especially well. "The freshness, high quality, provenance and condition really are reflected in the both presale interest and in the final sale results which exceeded our expectations" said Yamini Mehta, who heads Sotheby's for South Asia.

The Indian auction businesses include Pundole, Delhi Art Gallery and Osian's, which all held sales in Mumbai last month. Osian's was making a rare reappearance after years of financial problems.

Pundole's had a specially successful auction, producing a total hammer price of Rs33.8 crore ($5.3m) for 82 lots with only three not sold. That included Rs6 crore ($930,000) for a Tibetan gilt bronze Buddha statue, which was a record for any antiquity in an Indian auction.

Collectors also go for the unusual, as was shown yesterday at the end of Christie's auction, a set of 54 playing cards depicting work by South Asian artists conceived for the British Council in Delhi, took the bidding in three minutes from £60,000 to a hammer price of £230,000.

John Elliott writes from New Delhi. His latest book is Implosion: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins).

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