Listen to this article:
South Asian modern art auctions have maintained a strong trend set last year during the early stages of the pandemic with sales totalling over $30 in the autumn round – led by Sotheby’s, with two London auctions totalling £ 8.4m ($11.6m), Mumbai-based Saffronart with two totalling $8.6m and Christie’s in New York at $7.8m.
There were no big-ticket sales above $2m but a steady stream of activity at lower prices, notably for works new to market and with a strong provenance, with many exceeding their sensitively moderate estimates.
In the Christie’s auction, where 74 buyers and bidders participated from 12 countries, an unusually high figure of 70% of sales exceeded the top estimates, twice the usual amount.
This was led by The Embarkation, a 42×32 inch oil on canvas by Jehangir Sabavala (1922-2011), which sold for $1.59m, more than five times the low estimate. It established a new auction record for the artist, a prominent modernist from a Parsi family in Mumbai, almost doubling the last record set at Christie’s in September last year.
Painted in 1965, it depicts four ghostly figures in long yellow robes about to board two ships, marking a significant trend in Sabavala’s work.
Works by Bhupen Khakhar (1934-2004), an often controversial gay painter who has appeared frequently in auctions since a retrospective in London’s Tata Modern five years ago, have done well.
A record auction price of £2.54m was set at Sotheby’s two years ago and this week, one of his less explicit works, a 48×42 inch oil on canvas titled Krishna Hotel (right), exceeded its lower estimate by more than five times at Sotheby’s in London. It sold for a hammer price of £1m (£1.23m including the premium) after a final tussle between two bidders.
Krishna Hotel marked the start of Khakhar’s Tradesmen series of paintings that showed scenes of people’s daily lives. It had not been seen publicly since 1971, when it was bought by an American architect, Christopher Benninger, who worked in India and became a friend of Khakhar’s.
The same artist also did well in Christie’s New York September sale where a brilliantly coloured 36 x 36 inch oil and gold paint on canvas of a tree in a walled garden sold for $990,000 (£720,000) including the buyers’ premium, against a low estimate of $350,000.
Sotheby’s had two auctions this week. Its main South Asia modern and contemporary sale produced a total of £5.4m ($7.4m) against estimates of £2.7m-£4m estimates. A third of the buyers were new to Sotheby’s and a similar figure were aged under 40.
Aside from the Bhupen Khakhar, Sotheby’s works included a rather dark landscape (red building) by F.N.Souza, a leading member of the Progressives group that came together in the mid 2000s. Acquired by its owner for the dollar equivalent of £100 in Detroit in the 1980s, it doubled estimates at £922,500 (including the premium).
An 8×6 inch ink and pencil on card drawing by Souza of a head, dubbed Gentleman of our Times, also did remarkably well, selling for £12,600 including the premium, more than four times the top estimate.
The second auction called In an Indian Garden had a collection of company school paintings from the British colonial era with sales of £3m ($4.2m), nearly double the low estimate. A Great Indian Fruit Bat, dated 1778-83, topped the bidding at £644,200, more than double the low estimate.
Saffronart is primarily an online auction house but also has live auctions and it ran both in tandem earlier this month, achieving sales of Rs 45.72 crore ($6.2m) live and Rs 17.9 crore ($2.4m) online over two days.
Among the biggest surprises in its live auction was a spectacular 56×75 inch oil on canvas portrayal of a wedding procession in Ahmedabad – not by an Indian painter but by Edwin Lord Weeks, a late 19th century American Orientalist artist who worked extensively in India.
Perhaps more important for recording historic detail than for artistic imagination, it more than doubled the low estimate at a hammer price of $900,000, which might have gone higher if a would-be bidder had reacted a second before the lot was closed. Including the buyers’ premium, the price was Rs 7.99 crore ($1.08m).
Curiously, Saffronart’s online sale included Blue Bird, a 49×39 inch Tyeb Mehta acrylic on canvas with a top estimate of $1.35m – a level that’s more usual in a live auction. It did not draw its first bid till just seven minutes before the closing time and then rose slightly to sell at Rs 7.54 crore ($1.02m) including the premium. Another work by the same artist, a dark figure of a woman oil on canvas, failed to draw any bids.
In addition to those international auction houses, India’s online Artiana had a five-day auction this month that totalled $2.39m.
Bonhams in London, though far down the value list at a total of just £706,000 ($900,000), was notable for being the only auction house to produce a paper catalogue – the others cashed in on a pandemic trend set last year and saved money by only sending out pdf copies, even for live auctions.
It withdrew three paintings by S.H. Raza, a doyen member of the Progressives, because of delayed authentication, but Bombay Street Scene, an early Raza 12×19 inch watercolour on paper, fetched more than seven times the top estimate at £75,250 ($103,728) including the premium.
A prancing horse by M.F.Husain (1915-2011), one of the best known Progressives, sold for £106,500 ($146,805) including the premium, well above the top £60,000 estimate – enhanced perhaps by its provenance – it was given by Husain to Mohammed Rafi, a renowned singer.
A 9×12 inch pencil pen and ink and watercolour, An Inmate of the Harem by Devi Prasad Roy Chowdhury sold at ten times the low estimate at £20,250 ($27,913) including the premium – a happy ending in the final week of the season’s modern art auctions.
This article was first published on Riding the Elephant, the author’s blog. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity.