For decades, F.N. Souza’s Townscape sat in a Junior Common Room cupboard at Nuffield College, Oxford, unwanted, and just a few hands away from the dump. The college had a tradition of storing pieces of art for students who wanted to decorate their rooms. But Townscape, along with Tyeb Mehta’s Thrown Bull and Crucifixion, simply had no takers. The Mehta pieces were bought from a local gallery in the 1960s for £40 (about Rs3,250) and £18, respectively. “These paintings were never picked up because the students just didn’t seem to like them,” says Kristina Sanne of the Islamic and Indian Art department at Bonhams, which will showcase the three pieces in its upcoming auction on 21 May.
Souza’s neglected work is estimated to sell for £120,000- 180,000, while Mehta’s Thrown Bull is pegged at £150,000 to £200,000 (one of the highest estimates at the auction), and Crucifixion for £15,000 to £25,000.
Bonhams’ Modern and Contemporary Indian and Pakistani Paintings, at which 139 of the 152 lots are just Indian pieces, is only one of three London art auctions scheduled to entice collectors next week. “By now, most serious collectors have all three catalogues on their desks, and they can decide exactly what they like and be selective,” says Dinesh Vazirani of Saffronart, Mumbai.
The Christie’s Modern and Contemporary Indian Art auction on 21 May is the first, followed by the Bonhams’ sale later that day. Just three days later, on 24 May, Sotheby’s is scheduled to conduct The Indian Sale, which will see a mixture of miniatures and contemporary work. “Our sale is balanced very differently,” says Zara Porter Hill, vice-president of the Indian and South East Asian department at Sotheby’s. “The number of high-quality pieces from some artists is quite large, and we think people will wait for them, and the underbidders from other auctions will be aggressive.” It’s still a risk; at the Christie’s March sale in New York, several top lots were unsold, and the $8.5 million (about Rs35 crore) sales revenue was far less than estimates.
This year, all three houses have an exhaustive collection of paintings from modern and contemporary masters such as S.H. Raza, M.F. Husain, Mehta, V.S. Gaitonde, Souza (there are more than 30 of his works in the Bonhams’ show), Sadanand K. Bakre, Sakti Burman, Jamini Roy (Bonhams has the largest work by Roy, in remarkably good condition), Subodh Gupta and Laxma Goud. In fact, the Sotheby’s and Christie’s catalogues contain almost identical cover art of untitled Gaitonde paintings from the same period. Gaitonde’s 1970 oil-on-canvas, at £300,000 to £500,000, is also the most expensive offering from Sotheby’s. While, at Christie’s, Raza’s La Terre is pegged between £400,000 to £600,000.
The pieces, such as the Nuffield collection, at all three auctions have mostly come from European and American collectors. “A fair amount of the works is from private collections of people who lived in India during the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. And they want to capitalize on the heat of the market,” says Yamini Mehta, director of Modern and Contemporary Indian Art at Christie’s. But sourcing is slowly increasing from India, even though most Indian collectors want much higher estimates for their pieces than their western counterparts. “Our estimates are not that high because if you put too high values, you risk turning people off,” says Hill of Sotheby’s.
Christie’s and Sotheby’s have always enjoyed a very strong following among traditional collectors. But the make-up of those buyers is split most unevenly between the diaspora and everyone else. “When we first started having sales of this scale, 99% of people who bought the pieces were NRIs, but ever since customs duties have been relaxed, we’re seeing more and more Indians buy, and it reflects on the success story of India,” says Mehta of Christie’s. With a variety of price points that stretch wide from a Bimal Das Gupta oil starting from £2,000 to the high-end Husain pieces, auction houses are now hoping for the new, younger kind of buyer, who, as Mehta says, “enjoy art of their own time”.
With an increasing number of Indian residents decamping in the city for the season, and the rising tide of interest in Indian art and culture, the rush of auctions is part of a decidedly Indian wave sweeping through London this summer. The Tate Modern has just completed a showing of Amrita Sher-Gil paintings, while in July, the city is geared to host India Now, dedicated to art, fashion and cultural events.
But it’s unlikely that any unplanned purchase on a stroll will ever bring the sort of windfall that Nuffield College is likely to enjoy. The college aims to use the money raised from the sale to acquire modern British paintings.