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It's Husain season again

Kishore Singh  |  New Delhi 

This time, last year, an unsold lot on an auction block was unheard of. But that was before the bottom fell out of art markets worldwide, and those who said art prices will toughen in a state of recession could only watch in horror as inflated spends on dubious quality art began to hemorrhage. It’s a matter of time, pleaded the art fraternity, before the prices bounce back, but nobody was listening — they were too busy crying over the lost value of their too-hastily acquired collections.

Don’t bring out the champagne yet, but there’s reason to raise a toast as those prices begin to claw back again. At the three benchmark auctions this summer, while the soft prices didn’t harden much, there was clear indication that better-quality art was going to find buyers at a rising value.

Top 10 artists by value
Artist Name of work Auctioned by Price (Rs)
F N Souza Orange Head Sotheby’s 3.16 crore
M F Husain Ragamala Series Christie’s 3.11 crore
Jogen Chowdhury Day Dreaming Sotheby’s 2.92 crore
V S Gaitonde Untitled Saffronart 1.49 crore
Rashid Rana Red Carpet 4 Christie’s 1.37 crore
Ram Kumar Untitled (Benares) Christie’s 1.04 crore
Subodh Gupta Untitled (Utensils) Saffronart 94.5 lakh
M F Husain Untitled Saffronart 91.5 lakh
M F Husain Untitled Sotheby’s 85 lakh
M F Husain Untitled Sotheby’s 85 lakh

And clearly M F Husain was the darling of the collectors, with many more of his works back on the auction blocks (he had been all but banished by collectors in the wake of a controversy surrounding the naming of one of his works, and is self-exiled in Dubai and London). Though he did not hit the premium jackpot, many of his works did extremely well. While his Ragamala Series, painted in 1954 and considered among his more important paintings, would have commanded at least twice as much in happier times, at Rs 3.11 crore it was a steal for the successful Christie’s bidder, and marks a point of return in the serious stakes for India’s most well-known modern artist. At Sotheby’s, five lesser Husain works between them raked in Rs 3.7 crore. With Saffronart also including him as their third-highest seller, clearly Husain is the flavour of the season.

The top price was retained by F N Souza by a whisker, a derivative work that is an excellent example of the artist’s quality of distortion, but the surprise was Jogen Chowdhury, who had fallen off the favourite lists, and whose Day Dreaming, a lyrical ink and pastel on paper, at Rs 2.92 crore, bettered his previous record of Rs 1.55 crore. Both Souza and Chowdhury at Sotheby’s, and Ram Kumar at Christie’s, considerably upped their final value over their pre-sale higher estimate value.

At Christie’s, other top performers included Krishen Khanna (Rs 52 lakh) and Bikash Bhattacharjee (Rs 50 lakh), while V S Gaitonde was Saffronart’s top performer, with Subodh Gupta and Akbar Padamsee among the other artists who did well. However, the success of the moderns is a clincher to the argument that the contemporaries have a long way to go to prove their sustainability, with only Subodh Gupta and Rashid Rana representing their genre in the top stakes.

Contemporary artists have been finding it difficult to justify their earlier prices, and many of the unsold lots belong to the contemporaries, despite lower price points. But with roughly 70 per cent lots on average sold, and higher than expected values, the art fraternity is beginning to see a thaw in both price resistance and willingness to buy art.

Hugo Weihe, international director of Asian art, Christie’s, says he now sees “renewed vigour in the field”, while Zara Porter-Hill, director and head of Indian art at Sotheby’s sees the market “sending a very positive and encouraging message” to collectors. In India, Minal Vazirani, president and co-founder of Saffronart, appears relieved. “We believe Indian art is entering a more substantial phase of growth,” she said after the Saffronart auction.

It might be a happy winter, after all.

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First Published: Fri, June 19 2009. 00:09 IST