Market in Indian Artists Bounces Back


Auction houses need to find something special to galvanize the hesitant Indian modern art market and make their sales a success, and that is what both Christie's and Bonhams have succeeded in doing at their annual June sales in London.

Christie's hit a winner on June 10 with a large historic work by M.F.Husain, one of the best known of India's modern painters, who died four years ago this week. (Christie's)

The work sold for something of a record at $1.67 million, including buyer's premium. Also in the auction, which totaled $11.15 million with 80 percent of the 76 lots sold, were memorable works by Gaganendranath Tagore and Amrita Sher-Gil.

Bonhams scored on June 11 with six Vasudeo S. Gaitonde drawings from the 1960s that rarely come to the market. They were sold for a total of $1,130,888 (including buyer's premium) after keen bidding that included at least one established Indian collector and generated more telephone bidding chatter than is usual in auction rooms.

Also running at the same time was a two-day online auction by Mumbai-based Saffronart that totaled $3.49 million including buyer's premium, though only 67 percent of the 85 lots found buyers. Topping the sales was a work by another veteran modernist, S.H.Raza, titled Earth that fetched $1.23 million.

Overall, it was a successful week for the Indian modern art market that is still recovering from a slump in recent years. Christie's best recent results have totaled $15.45 million and $12.09 million at its heavily marketed Mumbai sales in 2013 and 2014

Top collectors, dealers and a few artists gathered in London for the sales and a series of parties and gallery events.

Gaganendranath Tagore's unititled work, priced low as the Christie's auction opening lot, beat estimates by four or five times, selling for $86,738 including buyer's premium. (Christie's)

There has been a special emphasis on 89-year-old Krishen Khanna, with the release of a film on his life and work, and an exhibition of his recent paintings at the Grosvenor Gallery in Mayfair. He talked at the Courtauld Institute about his memories of Husain, F.N.Souza, Tyeb Mehta, S.H.Raza and others who gathered soon after India's independence in 1947 around what was known as the Bombay-based Progressives Group.

The auction market still largely depends on Krishen Khanna's generation of painters for its big sales.

Only one of Christie's top 10 works was by an artist born after 1925, and all of Saffronart's top 10 were born in the 1920s or earlier. Art Tactic, the art analysis firm, calculated recently that 20 of these artists generated 75 percent of total Indian auction sales last year.

There are of course younger modernist style painters, but they do not command top prices. Once-prominent contemporary artists are no longer in demand, having reached unsustainable prices during the mid-2000s boom years.

ArtTactic says the top 20 accounted for only 5 percent of sales last year. Even a work by the internationally recognized Bharti Kher, estimated at $77,780-$108,890, failed to find a buyer at the Christie's auction, though a large depiction of pots and pans against an urban background by her husband, Subodh Gupta, sold for a hammer price of $140,000.

Strong demand for the most interesting moderns was demonstrated by the record-making Husain that was bought by Kiran Nadar, one of the India's top collectors, for her Delhi museum.

Originally shown in 1956 at the Venice Biennale, the work is more than 8 feet wide. Ten panels depict ideas and subjects such as a village woman, a triumphal elephant and galloping stallions that became Husain's trademarks in later years, representing says Christie's "a political testament to a progressive India."

Competition against another strong bidder drove the hammer price to the top pre-estimate figure of $1.4 million. Including buyer's premium, that came to $1.67 million, which is almost three times the $602,000 paid for it by a dealer at a Sotheby's New York auction just four years ago. (Christie's)

Christie's says that this is a record for a Husain, which it is, just—$1.61 million was achieved at its New York auction for the artist's Battle of Ganga and Jamuna in 2008, when it was also an all-India record. This week's figure is only slightly bigger, and that is more than offset by currency depreciation, but it does demonstrate the prices that collectors such as Nadar are prepared to pay for significant art. The sale is also important because Husain has lagged since 2008 behind record prices set by others of his generation, led by Gaitonde, Mehta and Souza.

Gaitonde's ink on paper drawings of about 28 inches by 20 inches, reminiscent of Japanese sumi-e works, rarely come to the market—some are in a collection at Delhi's National Museum of Modern Art.

The fact that Bonhams had six for sale drew international attention. The works were originally acquired directly from the artist by an American abstract painter, Morris Graves, who visited Gaitonde's studio in 1963 and described him as "one of the finest painters I have ever seen."

Estimated between $31,110 and $54,440 each, they went for hammer prices between four and five times higher. Including buyer's premium, that put the highest price at $246,555 for one of the works and the lowest $208,440.

The auction houses were happy with their results this week—Christie's Deepanjana Klein said they showed that "collectors are coming back." The next tests of that trend will be Sotheby's annual London auction in October and Christie's in Mumbai in December.

Meanwhile, maybe, someone will find a way to persuade collectors to broaden out beyond the original modernists.

John Elliott's latest book is IMPLOSION: India's Tryst With Reality (HarperCollins, India). This article first appeared at