All too often dealers have moaned the diminishing magnitude of good quality and historically provenanced art, pointing out that acquisitions in important collections place them out of reach of the market. While this is a valid enough reason for an increase in the valuations of artists who are now considered masters, art-lovers reasonably expect to see some of these collected works come back into the market on secondary sales. Often, though, such sales are privately handled — because the seller does not want to draw attention for reasons of tax, or embarrassment (selling art, after all, is equivalent to peddling the family silver), which is why sellers have tended to use the argument that collections are sacrosanct to increase the value of those artists’ works that are in the market.
More collections have been discreetly sold than collectors are aware of, handled by dealers, but the veil is being lifted off one such forthcoming sale — a part of the bequest bequeathed by Jamshed Bhabha to the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA), Mumbai. Bhabha’s own collection had much to do with his brother Homi Bhabha — both brothers were collectors who were known to patronise the modernists — 20 of which works will be auctioned on April 20 to raise funds for the cultural institute.
When it decided to tide over its need for funds by selling off its art, NCPA picked the highly regarded Dadiba Pundole to undertake the assignment. Pundole’s gallery has had a long association with the modernists, and Dadiba Pundole was till recently a consultant with auction house Sotheby’s, to which he first offered the 20 lots. However, the fund crunch made it essential for the sale to be executed almost immediately, but not wanting to conduct it privately, Pundole did the next best thing — he chose to announce the sale through his own hastily put together auction house, thereby launching Pundole’s.
India has fast garnered a reputation for establishing art institutions, including auction houses, with Pundole’s being only the latest. While buyers (and sellers) might see a conflict of interest between the gallery and the auction house, Dadiba Pundole is confident in assuring them that his intention is to keep his own gallery stock out of its auctions. Though its long-term agenda remains unclear, Pundole’s does not plan to have an auction calendar, hoping to sell only properties that interest it, as and when they come up, but limiting itself to single-ownership collections of a “historical” value.
In this instance, there are 13 artists that include Jamini Roy, K K Hebbar, N S Bendre,B Prabha, Badri Narayan, S Roerich, a 1959 cityscape by S H Raza, three Gaitondes (rare in itself, since V S Gaitonde painted very little), M F Husain’s unusual portrait of two sisters painted in 1958, Krishen Khanna’s Concerning a Drowned Girl that Pundole considers the finest of the artist’s variations on the same theme and one of his career’s best works, and a K H Ara nude that is definitely among that artist’s greatest. “In the case of such historic paintings” — and with their impeccable provenance — “it is difficult to put a price on them and easier to let the market decide the premium, thereby avoiding under- and over-expectations,” he says.
The total value of the sale is just under Rs 5 crore on the lower estimate and under Rs 7 crore on the higher estimate, with the Husain valued at Rs 30-40 lakh, the Krishen Khanna at Rs 22-28 lakh, the Ara between Rs 8-12 lakh, and at least one of the Gaitonde’s given star billing between Rs 1.8-2.2 crore.
While Pundole’s debut auction will be watched with interest among the collectorati, there’s a post-script to this for organisations unsure about the collectability of art. As the NCPA-Pundole’s sale indicates, art is an asset that can be liquidated in times of financial insolvency, provided it has been selected, at the point of investment, with care. Go buy.
Kishore Singh is a Delhi-based writer and art critic. These views are personal and do not reflect those of the organisation with which he is associated