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South Asian Art a Bright Spot at Fall Auctions

Sales of South Asian modern and contemporary art during New York’s recent series of auctions of Asian art yielded strong individual prices and provided the first indicator of the likely performance of the fall season.

NEW YORK—Sales of South Asian modern and contemporary art during New York’s recent series of auctions of Asian art yielded strong individual prices and provided the first indicator of the likely performance of the fall season. As has been the case for nearly all fine-art categories in the past year, volume dropped sharply compared with that of last year’s Asia week.

Christie’s five Asian-art sales took in $36.6million, with a sale of Chinese ceramics and works of art on Sept. 15 contributing $20.7million to that overall total. By comparison, Christie’s total for Asian sales last fall was $51.1million. Sotheby’s realized a total of $19.3million for three sales, the largest portion also coming from a sale of Chinese ceramics and works of art, which took in $10.9million. Last year, Sotheby’s achieved a total of $26million in its Asian sales. This year, South Asian modern and contemporary art brought in a total of $3.7million, compared with $7.8million in sales of Indian contemporary art last September.

In August of last year, Sotheby’s officials announced that starting this year it would hold all of its auctions of contemporary Asian art in Hong Kong, noting that that is where the house had achieved the highest prices for the category. Its final New York Asian-contemporary auction in September of last year accounted for $8.7million in sales.

Online auctioneer Saffronart, which specializes in Indian contemporary art, realized $3.7million in its two-day auction Sept. 9–10, selling 77 percent of the 95 lots offered. Saffronart’s sale last September yielded $7.2million and sold 80 percent of 130lots (ANL, 9/16/08).

Christie’s sale of South Asian modern and contemporary art on Sept. 16 took in $6.3million. Of the 100 lots offered, 63 percent found buyers. By value the auction was 81 percent sold. The total was down by about half from the $12.6million of last September’s sale, in which 67 percent of the 126 lots offered were sold. “We were very selective, and happy to see that collectors recognized quality,” said Hugo Weihe, Christie’s international specialist head of South Asian modern and contemporary art.

The top lot was Tyeb Mehta’s acrylic painting Mahishasura, 1994, which was estimated at $600,000/800,000 and sold for $1.3million to an Indian private collector. Mehta, who died last July, became the first Indian artist to break the $1million barrier, when a 1997 painting, also titled Mahishasura, sold for $1.6million in September 2005 (ANL, 9/27/05). The artist worked very slowly, and there are only about 200 works in all, so it is very rare to come across two Mahishasura works in such a short period of time, Weihe noted.

The 1994 Mahishasura sold this month had been in the collection of the Times of India Group, New Delhi, and as recently as September 2002 had fetched $107,550 at Christie’s in New York (estimate: $40,000/60,000). As a further sign of how quickly prices for Indian art have risen in recent years, in 2002 Mehta’s triptych Celebration, 1995, was the first Indian contemporary work to sell for more than $100,000, when a Japanese collector acquired it at Christie’s for $317,000.

“Indian art has had a tremendous run since 2002,” Weihe told ARTnewsletter. “What’s happening at this time is that there is a much greater awareness, a new phase of consolidation and true connoisseurship.” He added that attention from curators has been increasing as well.

The second-highest-selling lot in Christie’s recent auction was another work by Mehta. Two Figures, 1994, was sold for $926,500, exceeding its $600,000/800,000 estimate. And an untitled 1958–60 painting reflecting the artist’s earlier, more figurative style, soared to $266,500, also surpassing its more modest $40,000/60,000 estimate. In 1960, Mehta had given the painting as a wedding present to E.K. Walker, with whom he worked as a hospital porter in North London.

New High for Jitish Kallat

A new auction record was set for a work by Mumbai-based artist Jitish Kallat (b. 1974) with the sale of Dawn Chorus–7, 2007. The painting depicts four smiling boys with dense cityscapes superimposed on their hair, which “reflects the socio-economic disparities in Mumbai,” according to the catalogue. The work sold to a private buyer for $386,500, well over three times its estimate of $80,000/100,000.

Works by Jagdish Swaminathan (1928–94) also figured among the top lots. An untitled 1991 oil and wax on canvas, also from the collection of the Times of India Group, sold for $530,500 against an estimate of $300,000/500,000, and a 1973 untitled landscape painting, which had been estimated at $150,000/200,000, sold for $362,500 to a U.S. collector.

Sotheby’s Sept. 17 sale of south Asian modern and contemporary art, including Indian miniature paintings, brought in $3.7million, slightly exceeding the $2.5million/3.5million estimate. The auction was 70 percent sold by lot and 90 percent sold by value.

Zara Porter-Hill, Sotheby’s head of Indian and southeast Asian art, said the sale “confirms the growing confidence in the Indian market. We saw international bidding and buying, predominantly from private collectors, with a rejuvenated presence from our trade clients.”

The sale’s top lot was an untitled 1975 abstract oil painting by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, estimated at $400,000/600,000, which sold for $602,500 to an Indian private buyer. Mehta’s painting And Behind Me Desolation, 1976, once part of the Chester and Davida Herwitz Trust, sold to a U.S. dealer for $350,500, at the top of the $250,000/350,000 estimate. Works by Maqbool Fida Husain, who was present in the room on the occasion of his 94th birthday, figured prominently among the top lots. The highest of these was Bewildered Brown, which had been owned by the same collector since it was acquired directly from the artist in 1965. Estimated at $80,000/120,000, it was pursued by seven bidders and sold for $338,500, to an Indian private buyer. Husain’s oil Women in Yellow, 1970, from a California collection, also exceeded expectations, selling for $140,000 (estimate: $80,000/100,000); Untitled (Maya V), circa 1970s, sold for $104,500, clearing the $90,000 high estimate.

Buying for the top ten lots was spread among Indian private collectors, who accounted for four works, U.S. dealers, who bought two works, and U.S. collectors, who bought three. A European collector paid $146,500 for a 1954 untitled oil by Ram Kumar (estimate: $100,000/120,000).

Big Prices for Miniature Paintings

Indian miniature paintings yielded strong prices, albeit at more modest levels. The Royal Elephant Moto with his Mahout, an unattributed watercolor with gold, circa 1730–40, sold for $20,000, surpassing the $10,000/15,000 estimate.

The Ten Sikh Gurus with Guru Nanak-Ji at Center, circa early 20th-century, a watercolor measuring 12 by 17 inches, soared past the $5,000/7,000 estimate to sell for $45,000.

Saffronart’s sale was led by a “mythical landscape” painting, 1995, by Akbar Padamsee (b.1928), which sold for $391,000 against an estimate of $250,000/350,000. That was followed by Francis Newton Souza’s Old City Landscape, 1957, which brought $379,500, within the estimate of $300,000/500,000. An untitled painting by Husain depicting wild horses, circa 1970s, sold for $329,671 against an estimate of $167,000/187,500.

Saffronart CEO Dinesh Vazirani said the competitive bidding at each closing “clearly demonstrated that the Indian art market has regained momentum, with prices of high-quality works appreciating significantly.” —Eileen Kinsella

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