The Asia Week sales in New York opened with sky-high expectations for Indian modern and contemporary art, after last year’s remarkable results which saw a five-fold increase in totals.
While sales at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s continued on an upward trajectory, making $13.6m and $15.63m respectively, there were cautionary signs. Both auction houses withdrew a number of top lots, reportedly over questions of authenticity, while there were also concerns that the top end of the market may be close to saturation.
Meanwhile, the sales were disrupted by Hindu groups protesting about the works by M.F. Husain, the 91-year-old Muslim painter who faces obscenity charges in India and has received many death threats over his depictions of Hindu deities in the nude.
Nevertheless, the sales still went well. Sotheby’s total of $13.6m on 29 March was above the pre-sale estimate of $10.6m, but nothing like the spectacular leap the firm made between 2004 and 2005 when the total rose from $1.94m to $10m. Having done much to develop this market in the mid-1990s, before losing ground in recent years, Christie’s pulled ahead once again with figures of $15.63m, nearly doubling the $8.6m it took last September.
Last autumn, Tyeb Mehta’s Mahisasura became the first Indian painting to pass the million dollar mark when it was bought at Christie’s for $1.6m by one of the biggest collectors in recent years, Rajiv Chaudhri, president of Digital Century, a New York hedge fund. He bought both cover lots in these sales paying $1.25m (est $800,000-$1m) for Mehta’s Falling Figure with Bird, and $1.47m for V.S. Gaitonde’s, Untitled, the top lot at Christie’s.
To a great extent, the market is being driven by Indian buyers looking for investments, pushing prices for certain artists way beyond expectations. This time all eyes were on S.H. Raza, whose Tapovan, 1972, made a record $1.47m, the top price at Sotheby’s, while at Christie’s, his 1975 Tarangh sold for $744,000 (est $180,000-$220,000). In comparison, Tyeb Mehta’s Blue Torso, 1973, almost disappointed when it made $632,000, short of its upper estimate of $700,000.
Works by Francis Souza—recently accorded a whole room in London’s Tate Modern—totalled $3.6m. Three made six-figure sums, all easily doubling their estimates, including $800,000 paid by a Hong Kong-based collector for the 1962, Untitled (Seated Nude). A corollary of such success, however, is the problem of fakes. Among works by a number of top artists withdrawn by both auction houses were a group of five late Souzas, all believed to be from the same vendor and originally from Pakistan.
M.F. Husain is no longer fetching the highest prices in the market, partly as a result of his prolific output. The world auction record of $576,000 (est $300,000-$500,000) made here by Sita Hanuman, 1979, seemed modest compared with the prices commanded by Mehta and Raza. But his appeal remains remarkably consistent. Among the buyers of 12 works which totalled $2.7m, was new age guru Deepak Chopra.
The taste of Indian collectors is essentially conservative. Despite using new media, the younger contemporary artists making an impression are still aesthetically conventional. There were six-figure sales by Ravinder Reddy and Subodh Gupta, whose milk churns, examples of which were on offer at London’s Frieze art fair, sold for $147,000 (est $20,000-$30,000) at Christie’s.
While the prices being made in this market still seem spectacular, few new collectors are emerging and buyers remain almost exclusively Indian.
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as: Fakes overshadow contemporary Indian sales