New York Auction Sets Record for Indian Painting

Francis Newton Souza’s 'Birth' CHRISTIE'S IMAGES LTD. 2015

This article first appeared on the Riding the Elephant blog.

A new record price for an Indian painting was set on September 17 at a Christie's auction in New York when India's most prolific collector, Kiran Nadar, bid $3.5 million ($4.01 million including buyer's premium) for Birth, a monumental 8 feet by 4 feet oil on board by F.N. Souza, one of the country's most famous artists, who died in 2002.

The previous record price of $2.59 million for a Souza work was set just last week at a Saffronart auction in Delhi, when his 5 feet by 4 feet Man and Woman Laughing went to the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) for a hammer price of Rs14.6 crore – Rs16.84 crore ($2.59 million) including the premium.

Souza's earlier record was held by Birth, which was bought at a Christie's London auction for £1.27 million ($2.5 million) in June 2008 at the height of a boom in Indian art by Tina Ambani, wife of Anil Ambani, one of the two Mumbai-based Reliance business brothers.

She bought it for her Harmony Art Foundation, which has made a tidy profit on the sale, though the work was estimated in the Christie's catalogue at surprisingly low figures of $2.2 million to $2.8 million.

India's old modern masters have been taking it in turns to hit record India prices at auctions. Souza's sometimes tortured canvases and evocative line drawings of figures, often nude, and of townscapes are regularly on offer, but their prices have been beaten in recent years by other old members of the Progressives Group such as V.S. Gaitonde, who held the record till September 17 with a $3.79 million work sold at Christie's in Mumbai in December 2013, Syed Haider Raza, and Tyeb Mehta, plus Amrita Sher-Gil.

"It is a world record for a major work and it is well deserved," says Hugo Weihe, who was the auctioneer both for Birth in 2008 and the Laughing work last week, having left Christie's and joined Saffronart in recent months.

Painted in 1955, Birth embraces many of Souza's main themes of extravagant female nudes, gaunt male faces, still life, religion and townscapes. For some people, it captures all the magic and intimacy of his works, while others see it as too oppressively dark with little apparent joy in the pending birth.

There's been speculation that this is why Tina Ambani never took the work to India. I was in the London auction room in 2008 and watched Preeti Ambani, a cousin of Anil and president of Harmony foundation, make the bid at a sale buzzing with excitement that may have encouraged her to push up the price.

Her bid was 56 percent higher than the previous record for any modern Indian work. But Birth then went not to Tina Ambani's Mumbai home, nor to the Harmony foundation in the city, but to the U.S. on loan to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts.

The dramatic changes in the market since the boom of the mid-2000s are demonstrated by the fact that Christie's did not even put Birth on the cover of its 2008 catalogue. That honor went instead to Subodh Gupta, a contemporary artist whose installations and paintings of shiny pots and pans, and poor Indians traveling through airports and delivering milk, were then fashionable market leaders.

A large installation of his pots and pans fetched £601,000 ($1.2 million) at that auction, but his prices have slumped from their peak as buyers have swung away from contemporaries to the safer havens of the older moderns like Souza. A Gupta work consisting of two cast bronze airport luggage trolleys went today for a hammer price of $70,000 ($87,500 including buyer's premium).

The Delhi Art Gallery has one of India's largest gallery collections of modern art but has not entered auctions at the $2 million-plus level before. It intends to show Man and Woman Laughing in a special section for masterpieces that it will display next January at Delhi's India Art Fair. The $2.59 million price might have been higher if Kiran Nadar, wife of the founder of the HCL software business, had bid, but she already has a similar rather grimmer work called Man and Woman Grinding and was presumably waiting to bid for Birth.

Apart from the record Souza, Christie's New York auction had mixed results in the upper ranges. Three of the five works with the highest estimated prices failed to reach their minimum price, including two by old masters Raza (the cityscape above) and M.F.Husain (whose 100th birth anniversary yesterday was marked by Google India [] with the home page).

The sale totaled $8.77m including buyer's premium and six of the 73 works on offer were not sold,

One of its star results was the first lot, an early 10 inch x 7 inch Gaitonde similar in style to Indian miniature figurative painting, which went for a hammer price of $160,000, approximately five times the estimate.

Saffronart did better last week with a sale totaling $12.7 million, and only two out of 75 works failing to sell. This is basically an online auction house and last week's sale was one of its rare live events, which seemed to pay off because the auction room in a Delhi hotel was packed and lively.

Its s econd highest sale was by Tyeb Mehta (and was bought for Rs9.75 crore ($1.77 million including buyer's premium) by another Delhi collector, Shivinder Mohan Singh from the family that used to own the Ranbaxy pharmaceutical company and now runs healthcare businesses. That work was sold at a Sotheby's New York auction in 2000 for just $26,000, which illustrates the enormous movement in prices over the past 15 years.

The lessons from the two auctions, as always these days, is that top artists' best works sell well. Gone are the days of the early 2000s when, as Hugo Weihe said to me in 2008, "every new collector wanted an Husain."

Extensive marketing is needed to match the works and buyers and, for the record prices, there needs to be a collector determined to acquire prestige works – as Tina Ambani was in 2008, and Kiran Nadar is today buying for her Delhi modern art museum.

John Elliott's new book is Implodion: India's Tryst with Reality (HarperCollins, India). This article first appeared at