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Asian Art Auctions Score Record U.S. High

Twentieth-century art from India moved to new prominence in the art market during Asian sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York from Sept. 20-22, with 117 of 128 lots selling at Christie’s for $8.6 million and a single-owner collection of modern Indian works at Sotheby’s bringing in $1.6 million. The complete result for Indian

NEW YORK—Twentieth-century art from India moved to new prominence in the art market during Asian sales at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in New York from Sept. 20-22, with 117 of 128 lots selling at Christie’s for $8.6 million and a single-owner collection of modern Indian works at Sotheby’s bringing in $1.6 million. The complete result for Indian and Southeast Asian works at Christie’s, including classical pieces, was $11.3 million; at Sotheby’s, $8.2 million.

Overall Christie’s reports a nearly $30 million total for three sales covering Chinese, Japanese and Korean, and Indian and Southeast Asian works—the highest to date for Asian art in a U.S. auction season, and well above last fall’s $23.43 million (see ANL, 10/12/04). The Sotheby’s total for Chinese, Indian and Southeast Asian works, and a pan-Asian selection of Buddhist art was $23 million—nearly double the $11.96 million realized in the September auctions a year ago.

The highest price of the week came at the Sotheby’s Chinese sale, when the London gallery Eskenazi Ltd. paid $3.9 million (estimate: $300,000/400,000) for a 14-inch-tall early Ming dynasty, Yongle period (1403-1425) blue and white prunus blossom vase (meiping), which had been in the collection of philanthropist Laurance Rockefeller. Though in recent years the market for Asian art has been buoyed by a number of newly wealthy Asian buyers, blue-and-white ware has been prized in the West. Giuseppe Eskenazi confirmed to ARTnewsletter that the Ming vase was purchased for a private client and will stay in the West.

At Christie’s a work by Tyeb Mehta (b.1925), Mahisasura, 1997, fetched $1.6 million—an artist’s record and also the record for any modern work from India. Commenting on the sale, Yamini Mehta, Christie’s specialist for modern and contemporary Indian art, says, “I was happy to note that the buyer and main underbidder are long-standing collectors of Indian art,” both contemporary and classical. “One is based in America, the other in India,” notes Mehta.

Traditionally, she says, buyers at the sale came from South Asia or else had emigrated from South Asia to other countries: “We are seeing now that more collectors actually within India are participating in the sales, and I also noticed a lot of activity from the Indian trade.”

Kumar Leads at Sotheby’s

Sotheby’s too saw strong results in its sale of Indian and Southeast Asian art, which also featured a section of modern Indian paintings. The top lot was an oil on canvas, Untitled, circa the 1970s, by Ram Kumar (b. 1924). The work sold for $396,800 (estimate: $80,000/100,000), a record for the artist.

Christie’s and Sotheby’s were in close competition when it came to claiming record prices. On Sept. 20 Sotheby’s posted a record $284,800 price for Bodies Drift Between You and Me, a 1971 oil by Maqbool Fida Husain (b. 1915). The following day Christie’s topped that figure when another painting by Husain, Trial, 1969, earned $486,400 (estimate: $300,000/500,000).

Sotheby’s posted an artist’s record of $284,800 (estimate: $100,000/150,000) for Man with Cross, 1961, an oil by Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002). Christie’s tied the record the following day, taking $284,800 for a second Souza painting, Girl with Hairpin and Girdle, 1957.

Another record at Sotheby’s was the $240,000 given for Untitled, 1962, a work by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (1924-2001), comfortably above the high estimate of $200,000. Of the 163 contemporary works from India offered by Sotheby’s, all but 15 were sold, for a total of $5.5 million.

Solid Gains for Indian Artists

In all, Sotheby’s set 12 records for Indian artists while Christie’s set 13, underscoring the strength of modern Indian works, suggests Arani Bose, owner and director of the India-focused, contemporary Manhattan gallery Bose Pacia. “It definitely is a watershed event for the market,” he told ARTnewsletter. “There was a lot of hoopla when a Tyeb Mehta sold for $317,000 two years ago (see ANL, 10/1/02). It has been a recurring theme, but the numbers keep going up.”

Among other records set or matched for modern and contemporary Indian artists at Christie’s: $180,000, or three times the high estimate of $60,000, for My School in Angkor, 2005, by Atul Dodiya (b. 1959); and $419,200 (estimate: $140,000/180,000) for Mirror Image, 2004, by Akbar Padamsee (b. 1928).

The remaining artists who set record prices, along with most of the modern Indian artists in the two auction houses’ sales, represent a generation that rose to prominence after India gained independence in 1947. Dodiya, however, is a contemporary figure who has come to notice in the last decade.

Bose says that interest was high at this year’s Venice Biennale in an unofficial Indian booth for mid-career Indian artists, including Dodiya. Still, he points out, “the downside is that a lot of people in this kind of economy and art market are buying works that may or may not retain their value.”

Chinese Art: a Vibrant Market

Chinese ceramics and works of art continued to dominate sale totals at both houses. The Christie’s Chinese sale on Sept. 20 realized $14.5 million and was 71 percent sold. The top lot set an auction record for the 14th-century painter Wang Meng (ca. 1309-1385) when his hanging scroll Fishing in Green Depths fell to an American collector for $1.7 million (estimate: $700,000/900,000). The same price was achieved for a blue and white Persian inscribed vase, with Zhengde mark (1506-21). The buyer was Eskenazi Ltd.

Overall the Sotheby’s Chinese sale on Sept. 21 was 50 percent sold by lot for a total of nearly $12.8 million. After the Rockefeller vase, the second-best price was $1.1 million, paid for a pair of Imperial reddish-brown ground and gilt-decorated lacquer cabinets and hat chests (Sijian gui) from the Ming dynasty (Wanli marks and period, 1573-1619).

The Christie’s Japanese and Korean art sale on Sept. 22 was 77 percent sold through by lot for a $4 million total, including an 18th-century Korean painted screen, Eight views of the Xiao and Xiang River, by Chong Sun, which fetched $598,400 (estimate: $250,000/350,000).

Sotheby’s pan-Asian sale “Arts of the Buddha” was 59 percent sold through by lot and made $2.1 million. The top lot, a Tang dynasty (618-907) gilt Buddha, was bought by an American collector for $732,800, more than double the $300,000 high estimate.

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