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Souza Sails to New High at Christie’s South Asian Sale

Christie’s scored the highest price to date for an Indian modern or contemporary painting at its London sale on June 11, when Francis Newton Souza’s Birth, 1955, sold for £1.3 million ($2.5 million), nearly double its estimate of £600,000/800,000.

NEW YORK—Christie’s scored the highest price to date for an Indian modern or contemporary painting at its London sale on June 11, when Francis Newton Souza’s Birth, 1955, sold for £1.3 million ($2.5 million), nearly double its estimate of £600,000/800,000.

The large canvas depicts a nude pregnant woman lying on a bed, about to give birth as a man sitting beside her looks on. The work is typical of Souza’s style, described in Christie’s catalogue as “powerful lines and bold, provocative compositions.” The previous record price for Souza was the $1.4 million given for another 1955 painting, Lovers, which was sold in December 2005 by online auctioneer Saffronart.

Christie’s auction of South Asian modern and contemporary art realized a total of £5.4 million ($10.6 million). Of the 111 lots offered, 78, or 70 percent, were sold; the sale was 86 percent sold by value. Twelve artist records were set, which Christie’s specialist and head of the sale Yamini Mehta said reflected the “continuing strength and depth of demand” for artworks in the category.

In the same way that prices for Chinese art have skyrocketed in recent years, demand for modern and contemporary Indian paintings has soared, driven by interest from collectors from Southeast Asia, Europe and the U.S., and the Indian diaspora, experts say.

New records were set for a number of the top-selling artists in this genre, including Tyeb Mehta (b. 1925) and contemporary artist Subodh Gupta (b. 1964). Mehta’s 1984 painting Untitled (Figure on Rickshaw) flew past the £300,000/500,000 estimate to take £982,050 ($1.9 million) from an Indian collector based in the U.S. An untitled 2007 sculpture by Gupta composed of stainless steel pots and utensils, from an edition of three, set a record for a sculpture by the artist when it brought £601,250 ($1.2 million) from a European collector (estimate: £300,000/500,000).

Other works by Gupta figured prominently among the top lots as well. These included Magic Wands, 2002, an installation made up of a group of chrome-plated cast-aluminum rods resembling large bamboo sticks. It sold for £169,250 ($330,714), again far past the estimate of £25,000/30,000. And the artist’s Bucket, 2007, a large stainless steel bucket filled with smaller stainless steel pots, brought £121,250 ($236,922) from a U.S. dealer (estimate: £50,000/70,000).

An Asian dealer purchased Rameshwar Broota’s Havaldar–III, a 1980 painting depicting a monkey dressed in military garb, for £337,250 ($658,986) against an estimate of £90,000/120,000. And an untitled 2005 oil painting by T. V. Santhosh (b. 1968) nearly tripled its high estimate, selling for £145,250 ($284,000).

Other record-setting lots included works by contemporary artists Justin Ponmany (b. 1974) and Ashim Purkayastha (b. 1967). Ponmany’s diptych Staple Agony–II (Plastic Memory), 2006, sold for £109,250, or $213,474 (estimate: £30,000/50,000). The same price was achieved for Purka¬yastha’s mixed media on canvas Attached Wings, 2004 (estimate: £40,000/60,000).

An untitled 2005 oil painting by T. V. Santhosh (b. 1968) nearly tripled the high estimate when it sold for £145,250 or $284,000.

The buyers of the top lots, and at the sale in general, spanned a wide geographical range, including U.S. and European collectors, Asian dealers and U.S.-based Indian buyers. Mehta noted that for the year to date, Christie’s total sales of South Asian modern and contemporary art in New York, London and Hong Kong stand at £13.2 million or $25.8 million.

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