For Whom the Gavel Falls
By : | January 4, 2014

Christie’s debut auction in India, which netted incredible amount of money, also laid the foundation for the revival of the comatose art market in India and afforded it vitality that has missing since 2010.


“Gaja Lakshmi” by Manjit Bawa

As record upon record was savagely shatteredat Christie’s inaugural sale in India on Thursday night, the net sum, including the premium collected by the auction house from the sale of 79 works of art, was a staggering Rs. 96.59 crores. If that is impressive, I’d like for you to consider the fact that nearly 55 per cent of this figure was amassed solely by the top three lots of the sale – an untitled work by V S Gaitonde and two paintings by Tyeb Mehta, with animposing total of Rs. 53.34 crores.

Of particular note, 50 amongst the sold lots were from the estate of Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, the distinguished first couple of Indian art, which raised a sum of Rs. 25.44 crores including the premium.

While the shadow of the taxman hovers ominously along with the concern of saddled add-on costs, including a buyers premium (ranging from 12-25% of the final bid value) and applicable taxation were a prohibitive concern for a few overtly circumspect collectors, this catalogue was evidently perused and patronized by an undaunted band of bidders that went after lots of interest, hammer and tongs.


“Tempera on Canvas Laid on Card” by Ganesh Pyne

That the finest auctioneers are masterfully intuitive beings with a sagely forbearance and wondrous prowess to seamlessly switch from gently prodding to sharply goading to directly impelling a hesitant, ‘nearly on the cusp of committing to pay a mind-numbing number’ bidder, was established beyond question over the course of the sale. With a paddle-packed salesroom and over a dozen specialists fielding multiple phone bids, it would appear to the uninitiated that Indian art was a fabulously prized domain.

To deconstruct this sale on the basis of the featured lots, the auction house seems to have deliberately steered clear of over -representing the mighty triumvirate of F N Souza, M F Husain and S H Raza as is typically the case, with all the featured masters including Ram Kumar, V S Gaitonde, Arpita Singh, Bhupen Khakhar, Ganesh Pyne and Tyeb Mehta being offered an at par, evenly balanced position in the sale.


“Untitled (Oil on Canvas)” by M F Husain

The opening lot of the sale proved to be a harbinger of the finest order, setting the tone for an evening that would be riddled with new records. The first work to be offeredwas a small gouache on paper by V S Gaitonde from 1949, deemed collectable by virtue of it being the earliest work on record by the master, selling for a record Rs. 98.25 lakhs, (against the suggested pre-sale of Rs 8-12 lakhs). Evidently, someone was willing to proffer an extortionate premium for it.

The tenth lot, a mid-format representation of a falling figure by Tyeb Mehta from the early 90s, fetcheda justifiable figure of Rs. 9.86 crores, setting a record for the highest value paid for the subject. The lot to follow, a lithograph of a bull by Mehta, however commanded an exorbitant figure selling for Rs. 27.5 lakhs. It would be interesting to note that Saffronart sold an edition of the same litho in March this year, for a comparatively paltry Rs. 5.16 lakhs, while yet another edition of the work went unsoldas recently as the Sotheby’s September sale.


“Mahishasura” by Tyeb Mehta

In keeping with this trend, lot 30, a photograph, and not one of Nasreen Mohamedi’s powerful, painstakingly rendered works on paper, set the record for the highest price paid for a work by the artist, netting Rs. 30 lakhs.

Though the 34th lot, a tempera on canvas by Ganesh Pyne, when read contextually bearing in view its scale, subject, palette and compositional rendering would be considered collectable, itfetched a strikingly rich sum of Rs. 2.30 crores, a record price for the artist. Lot 53, an ink and poster-colour on paper by Rabindranath Tagore, fetched a tenable Rs. 2.90 crores, a record price for the artist.

The 60th lot, an oil on canvas by Amrita Sher-Gil, was that of average quality. Though individual elements of this work, essentially the palette and the form of the structure rendered were independently excellent, the work itself failed to make the impact one would expect from the master.The final sum paid for this work was Rs. 3.62 crores.


“Hugarian Village Church” by Amrita Sher-Gil

The section of the evening that followed featured a back-to-back session of two records being established: that of the most expensive work, followed by the second most expensive work of Indian art to be sold. Lot 63, anuntitled canvas by Gaitonde,painted in 1979,is from a body of work by the master that I refer to as being truly recherché. The primary constituents of the master’s work – essentially its palette and light, interplay powerfully, resulting in a work that a viewer finds hard to look away from. This work sold for Rs. 23.7 crores, setting a new world record for the highest price paid for an Indian work of art.

The next lot, number 64, was Tyeb Mehta’s representation of Mahisasura that sold for Rs. 19.78 crores, setting a record for the artist. This particular work was sold by the same auctioneer during their September 2009 NY sale for Rs. 7.42 crores. The unorthodox palette of this workgave it an edge, a masterlybalance achieved by blending the bright with the conservative.

Lot 67, Ram Kumar’s early figurative oil on paper pasted on board from 1957, is one of his finest from this extremely collectable body of work. Estimated at between Rs. 1 and Rs 1.5 crore, this work fetched Rs. 3.50 crores, yet another record price that was clocked.


“Untitled (Head of a Woman)” by Jamini Roy

Amongst the remaining works, Lot 77, an oil oncanvas by Husain with the element of nudity playing an obvious deterrent, failed to make the reserve price on account of which it remained unsold. Lot 79, a watercolor on paper by Bhupen Khakhar from 1984, sold for Rs. 50 lakhs, setting a record price for the medium by the artist. Lot 82, a mid-format oil on canvas by J. Swaminathan from ‘84, sold for a valid price of Rs. 1.04 crores.

By the close of the evening, Christie’s had achieved what can only fittingly be described as a ‘dream debut’ in Mumbai, the city of dreams.

What this sale means for Indian art

This sale has, in one fell swoop, afforded the Indian art scene with a vitality that was tangibly absent on the surface since the turn of the 2010s. While sales of important works by the Modernists continued in the private realm, a sale such as this one jolts the band of larger fence-sitting collectors and investors out of their torpor.


“Untitled (South Kensington | ink on paper)” by Nasreen Mohamedi

Whilst in the short-term, this sale would be celebrated as an epoch-making event for giving the market a shot in the arm, and when read in the contextual long term it would be one of the many.

The final sale results that nearly doubled Christie’s suggested high estimate mark is a testament in large part to the effort that went into the production of this sale. Whether the other significant auction houses with interests in the Indian market, Pundole, Saffronart and Sotheby’s will be able to repeat and surpass this performance would depend on a number of factors, the most important ones being access to the capital required to market their sales, as also, access to spectacular signature masterpieces by the Modernists.

Christie’s, by virtue of its stellar inaugural accomplishment, has already captured the imagination of the owners of prized assets.

The coming year will witness the Guggenheim, NY play host to a major Gaitonde retrospective, in which the Christie’s prize winning work will undoubtedly be the centerpiece.


“Women with Boats and Ducks” by Arpita Singh

Research Study courtesy AMAS Advisory

Total sale value: Rs. 96,59,37,500

Some noteworthy records that were set over the course of the sale

Lot 1.

V S Gaitonde
Gouache on paper
Rs. 98.25 lakhs
New record for a work on paper by the artist.

Lot 11.
Tyeb Mehta
Lithograph in color
Rs. 27.50 lakhs
New record for a lithograph by the artist.

Lot 30.
Nasreen Mohamedi
Photographic print
Rs. 30 lakhs
New record for a work by the artist

Lot 34.
Ganesh Pyne
Tempera on canvas, laid on board
Rs. 2.30 crores
New record for a work by the artist

Lot 48.
Vivan Sundaram
Rs. 32.50 lakhs
New record for a work by the artist

Lot 63.
V S Gaitonde
Oil on canvas
Rs. 23.7 crores
New record for the most expensive Indian work of art
New record for a work by the artist

Lot 64.
Tyeb Mehta
Rs. 19.7 crores
New record for a work by the artist

Lot 83.
Manjit Bawa
Gaja Lakshmi
Rs. 3.86 crores
New record for a work by the artist

Arvind Vijaymohan is a leading Indian art advisor. He is a principal partner at AMAS Advisory, a market research & analysis firm that offers investment-specific guidance pertaining to Modern & Contemporary Indian art.

This article originally appeared in Mint, Dec 23rd, 2013

Arvind Vijaymohan is a leading Indian art advisor. He is a principal partner at AMAS Advisory, a market research & analysis firm that offers investment-specific guidance pertaining to Modern & Contemporary Indian art.