M F Husain died on this day a year ago. The value of his works was expected to escalate after his death. So why hasn’t that happened, asks Gargi Gupta
Bhavna Minocha, Delhi-based curator of Indian modern and contemporary art, remembers she was in Dubai this day a year ago when she got the news that M F Husain had died of a heart attack in London. “It was a very sad day for all of us. But I recall thinking that now the prices of the Husains that I had would go up.” It was a legitimate expectation. Husain is, incontestably, India’s best-known artist, a painter whose status as a “great” had been cemented decades ago. Also, prices of artists tend to generally go up after their death since the supply of their works stops and even small changes in demand lead to relatively greater price changes. It’s what happened with Tyeb Mehta, Manjit Bawa and now Jehangir Sabavala, whose Vespers I went for Rs 2.16 crore at Bonham’s Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art sale two days ago. The previous high for Sabavala, who died a few months after Husain in September last year, had been Rs 1.69 crore for The Casuarina Line at the Saffronart 2010 summer auction.
A year down the line, Minocha’s projections have proved to be a little too optimistic. Minocha, who also deals in artworks by the Moderns (as Husain, Raza, Souza, Ara, and the band of artists who began their careers in the 1940s and 1950s are collectively called) has found that while the demand for a Husain artwork has gone up — “There are many who just want a Husain on their walls. He is a brand. And his horses are a great favourite,” she says —, so has the number of Husains up for sale. One collector, she says, called her up soon after the artist’s death to have a look at his Husains — he had some 70 paintings kept “all rolled up”; another lady was tired of the Husains she’d had on her walls for many years and thought this was a good time to exchange them for some other artist.
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“Husain’s prices now are definitely higher than when he was alive but by no more than 10-15 per cent,” Minocha maintains. Look at the prices the artist fetched at Bonham’s June 7 auction; the highlight, The Blue Lady, a late 1950s work which is not just significant to the artist’s oeuvre, but also has impeccable provenance, went for £97,250, just slightly above its upper reserve price of £90,000. Compare this with Sabavala’s Vespers I which was the focus of a tussle between two buyers and eventually sold for £253,250, nearly 70 per cent more than the £150,000 fixed as its higher price estimate. Of the two other Husains on offer, a work from the early 1970s, sold for £49,250, well within the price band of £40,000-60,000; the other, Untitled, did not find takers. Of course, auctions are erratic measures of an artist’s standing — prices often depend on size, provenance and historical importance. Sabavala’s Vespers I was definitely the rarer and more significant work by these criteria, compared to the Husains.
But the fact remains that Husain’s prices have not leap-frogged the way, say, Tyeb Mehta’s or SH Raza’s have in recent years. The $1.6 million that the Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12 sold for at Christie’s in 2008 remains the high point of Husain’s prices. While Husain has sold at consistently high prices, he hasn’t really create waves at the auctions except, perhaps, in autumn last year at the first major sale after his death, when Christie’s offered 13 of his works which together netted $4.2 million. Eight of Husain’s paintings figured in the top-10 by price list, the high point being Sprinkling Horses, which was bought by an American collector for $1.14 million. The Sotheby’s sale a week later had another 11 works which netted $557,500. But the momentum petered out soon and in the spring auction at Christies this year, 16 Husains were on offer which fetched a little less than $2 million.
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The problem with Husain, as dealers, gallerists, auctioneers and collectors will tell you, is that of oversupply — especially the fact that he created a large number of “relatively mediocre small works, with many Provenance and Authenticity issues unresolved,” says Neville Tuli of Osian’s Auction House. “Husain painted some 70,000 works in his lifetime,” says Vickram Sethi, founder of Mumbai’s ICAI Gallery and AstaGuru Auctions, “unlike Tyeb or Raza who painted very few.” “It is easy to buy and difficult to sell a Husain, while it is difficult to buy and easy to sell a Raza,” says the founder of a Delhi-based art advisory. Husain was also as generous with his paintings as he was productive, gifting paintings to friends and casual acquaintances. Many of the beneficiaries of his munificence are now bringing their gifts into the market. Minocha mentions one such canvas that came to her for sale from someone who’d met Husain at a dinner in Dubai.
Besides, Sethi points to the present gloom in the global and national economy which has had an effect on the art market, hammering down prices of all but a handful of artists. According to the March 31 auction analysis circulated by ArtTactic, the London-based art market research and analysis firm, total sales volume of modern and contemporary Indian art has declined 27 per cent in the last one year. The downturn also means, as Tuli points out, that “the chances of [early historically important works] entering the auction circuit lessens as the financially aware purchaser will hold the work for better economic conditions”. Besides, says Tuli, his “‘horses or Mother Teresa series’ still dominate the mindset” and there is “very minimal interest” in his offbeat works. For instance, Osian’s Bombay & Baroda Auction this March 23 had four Husains of which three sold. The only one that didn’t was That Obscure Object of Desire Series, a large painting inspired by Bunuel’s cinema and important to Husain’s oeuvre, but an unusual work which depicts a verse running down the canvas.
Arun Vadehra of Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery, a long-time associate of Husain, however maintains that a year is too short a time span to judge how Husain’s prices will play out in the long run. “It takes two-three years for the market to stabilise, as happened in the case of both Tyeb and Manjit Bawa. Besides, the middle market, that is works in the range of Rs 15 lakh-25 lakh, has always been volatile.” Referring to the problem of plenty, Vadehra says that Picasso, whom Husain is often likened to, was also very prolific and generously gave away paintings, but that didn’t affect his prices.
Meanwhile the rush of Husains at the auctions continues. Sotheby’s auction yesterday had 10 Husains on offer (results hadn’t come in by the time of printing), the highlight being Untitled (Minotaur) estimated at a high £200,000. Christie’s auctions this Monday will have Cinq Sens that Husain painted in 1958 for Roberto Rosellini and his Bengali wife as the high point of its collection of 10 paintings on offer; while Saffronart’s Summer Online Auction on June 19-20 will have seven Husains — the most expensive, estimated between Rs 1.4 crore and Rs 1.8 crore, being a very large abstract from 1970. Will any of these paintings break the auction record for Husain?