Three auctions next month pitch inexpensive works with well-known artists to get a measure of the market.
June is expected to sizzle not just because of the heat in India, but because the focus once again will turn to Indian art as it attempts to claw back from a value bloodbath that has all but crippled its bull run in auctions around the world. And no one is wooing collectors the way Christie’s is, even though its hugely-shrunk catalogue has fewer treasures than in past auctions. But that has not tempered Hugo Weihe, Christie’s international specialist for Indian and South-east Asian art, from pitching broadly for the upcoming London sale, even though he admitted that “in times of recession it’s harder for us to get quality works”.
Weihe’s view, however, is that it opens up the market “for new collectors with more modest budgets”. This much is evident at its forthcoming auction where, despite the presence of the usual suspects, neither works nor prices have anyone in a tizzy. Unless, to take a leaf out of Weihe’s book, you’re looking for a bargain. In which case whether it’s F N Souza, Ram Kumar, M F Husain or S H Raza, there are works with an estimated value between Rs 25 lakh and Rs 40 lakh, with Manjit Bawa placed a little higher, paintings by Akbar Padamsee and a Subodh Gupta installation hovering at a modest Rs 70 lakh (upper estimate) and even a Tyeb Mehta in the sub-Rs 1 crore region. Only one work by Raza breaches the crore benchmark with an estimated value of Rs 1.2 crore. And the big draw is a work by Husain, painted in 1960, part of his Ragamala series, with an estimated value between Rs 2.8 crore and Rs 4.1 crore. Bets are on whether it will find a buyer or not.
Almost a week later, also in London, Sotheby’s will auction 86 subcontinental works, including miniatures, and though the star of the show might well be Nandalal Bose with a rare auction appearance of four ink and wash drawings, the price for each has an estimated high value close to Rs 12 lakh — making them the most affordable among collectibles, since it’s almost impossible to find Boses going on sale. There’s a good quality Manjit Bawa too, better than the ones on offer at Christie’s, with the spotlight on Jogen Chowdhury’s ink and pastel Day Dreaming that just might fetch the artist Rs 1 crore, a benchmark he has been finding difficult to re-establish in recent times.
Back home, Saffronart’s online auction, also of modern and contemporary works, cleverly juxtaposes affordable works by established artists — a mixed media on paper Raza for Rs 2-3 lakh, Sunil Patwardhan’s oil on canvas for Rs 2.5-3.5 lakh, A Ramachandran for 1-1.5 lakh, Shilpa Gupta, Shibu Natesan and N S Harsha each for Rs 3-4 lakh, Ganesh Haloi for Rs 1.5-2.5 lakh, Badri Narayan’s Girl with Cat and Sudhanshu Sutar’s Untitled each for only Rs 70,000-90,000, and Phaneendra Nath Chaturvedi’s pen and ink on paper The Day After Today for a mere Rs 30,000-40,0000 — with more sellable names and works, though but for V S Gaitonde’s Untitled (Rs 1.25-1.75 crore), Subodh Gupta’s Name (Rs 70-94 lakh), Husain’s Untitled (Rs 70-80 lakh), Ram Kumar’s Untitled (Rs 50-60 lakh), and Akbar Padamsee’s Untitled (Rs 50-70 lakh), most other works by Husain, Raza, Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna, Arpita Singh and Jogen Chowdury are in the sub-Rs 50 lakh category.
There’s a clear case that values are good — even if the art isn’t, but then barely 10 per cent of an artist’s work, on average, can lay claim to that — but the sales will provide a pointer to the direction in which prices are headed. Expectations are muted, with a lot of hope riding on recovery by the time the winter auctions come around. But for now the art fraternity is holding its breath, hoping that, like the Sensex, the recovery might come sooner: June would be a bonus.