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Sunil Sethi: The pedigree of prize art

Indian buyers are now demanding art with a pedigree

Sunil Sethi 

Sunil Sethi

These are said to be nervous times for the economy but not in the world of Indian art. There was plenty of cash sloshing about in the ballroom of the Oberoi hotel, Delhi, on Thursday evening. A phalanx of a dozen smart young men and women frenetically worked the telephones as Dinesh Vazirani, owner of Saffronart, and his new German CEO, Hugo Weihe - formerly head of Asian art at Christie's - took bids before a packed house of buyers, dealers and art connoisseurs. In an unusually exciting sale to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the online auction house, 75 lots of modern and contemporary Indian art netted Rs 82.6 crore in a few hours. Top honours went to a work titled Man and Woman Laughing by the late Francis Newton Souza, four by five feet, circa 1957, that fetched Rs 16.84 crore.

Several reasons were advanced for the sale's resounding success. First, the remarkable quality of the art, rare works by M F Husain, Akbar Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta that are regarded as the apogee of the artists' oeuvre. Second, the integrity and reputation that Saffronart has established as an international brand, with showrooms at the smartest addresses in London, New York, Mumbai and Delhi, and diversifying into sales from fine jewellry, antique and period furniture. (Although Vazirani will not put a figure, speculation estimates the worth of the company he founded with his wife Minal in 2000 as anywhere between Rs 400 crore and Rs 600 crore.) Thirdly, given the current volatility of the stock market and property prices, art presents a ready opportunity for the rich to park their money somewhere. Most of all, however, the sale signalled a new maturity and discernment among Indian art collectors and investors.

Saffronart's 220-page anniversary catalogue, by Indian standards, is almost an artwork in itself; it sets a new benchmark for quality in presentation and archival research, highlighting not only the importance of a particular work in the life of the artist but often its complex provenance. Indian buyers no longer seem content with paying premium prices for a bestselling artist - they now demand art with a pedigree. In so doing, they want to possess a little bit of the illustrious lives of the collectors who once owned the artwork.

Several of the prized works sold this week belonged to famous people. For example, a small early work by M F Husain, circa 1950, that fetched Rs 1.44 crore, not only marks the emergence of the artist's distinctive style but comes from the home of Begum Qudsia Zaidi, the pioneering theatre patron and Urdu litterateur in Delhi. A canvas by Akbar Padamsee titled Delta from 1963 that went for Rs 3 crore was owned by Krishna Riboud, a grandniece of Rabindranath Tagore, who married Jean Riboud (they were introduced by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1949). the business tycoon and head of Schlumberger, the powerful oilfield services corporation. In their heyday, the Ribouds played host to world leaders such as Francois Mitterand and Indira Gandhi, and befriended artists, writers and filmmakers around the world; their grand salon in Paris was filled with a famous collection of European surrealists, Indian and Chinese antiquities and textiles. The artist Krishen Khanna vividly recounted his lasting impression of the redoubtable Mme Riboud, who often dressed in couture by Pierre Cardin and Issey Miyake. "She was one of the most knowledgeable, stylish and discriminating art patrons I knew."

More astonishing is the story of Chester and Davida Herwitz, an American couple who made a fortune from selling leather handbags, and began to amass Indian art, often directly from artists, after their first visit to the country in 1962. Over the decades they collected thousands of works, some 1,600 of which are today held by the Peabody Essex in Salem, Massachusetts. A tiny crayon drawing on paper by Tyeb Mehta, dated 1999, from the Herwitz hoard went for Rs 25 lakh.

In her succinct introduction to the painstaking catalogue she has compiled for Saffronart's landmark sale, editor Meera Godbole-Krishnamurthy describes the motivation of collectors, whether philanthropic or purely personal, to become "guardians of history…the symbiotic relationship between the artist and collector is best manifested when an artwork travels from one home to another, because great art enriches lives in intangible ways."

The notable Delhi-based collector Nitin Bhayana, however, put the urge to buy art with a certified ancestry in more tangible terms. "We Indians are terribly conscious of lineage. Among the first questions we tend to ask is, "Tera baap kaun tha?" (Who was your father?").

First Published: Fri, September 11 2015. 21:34 IST