Lord Mark Poltimore first visited India in 1995 with a very specific brief from his employer, Sotheby’s: There must be hundreds of millionaires in Mumbai, find out what they want to buy besides jewellery. The tough part followed when he found the answer. How do you map the tastes of a nation obsessed with only one artist, M.F. Husain? “Nobody was willing to buy anything but Husain, perhaps occasionally a (S.H.) Raza or a (F.N.) Souza. Husain almost single-handedly carried the torch of modern Indian art, and it is largely because of him that the West noticed Indian art,” says Lord Poltimore, deputy chairman, Sotheby’s, Europe and new markets.
The decade that followed Lord Poltimore’s first visit shattered many notions about Indian art. New names emerged; galleries, collectors and dealers proliferated; Sotheby’s completed 12 years of auctioning Indian art, and managed to redeem its somewhat chequered history in India. By the end of 2006, “Indian contemporary” became a cool word; a survey by CNBC TV18 concluded in 2007 that the art market amounted to $350 million (around Rs1,400 crore).
Collector’s choice: Lord Poltimore’s personal favourites — M.F. Husain, Raqib Shaw and Anish Kapoor. (Jayachandran / Mint)
Lord Poltimore’s second visit to India in the last week of February was an affirmation of what he has been witnessing in auction rooms and art galleries worldwide—that buyers are no longer obsessed with just Husain or jewellery. With that realization came disappointment.
Lord Poltimore’s role at Sotheby’s is that of a conduit between the auction house, and dealers and collectors. He values a work of art based on the quality of the work, the artist’s market value and the veracity of the work. And that includes a lot of works by young Indian artists because, Sotheby’s now wants to showcase them at international auctions. “Indian artists, much like Chinese artists, are doing something very unique. They are taking stylistic influences from iconic artists from the West, such as Mark Rothko and Andy Warhol, and yet making their art very uniquely Indian in sensibility and theme. That is a big draw for collectors around the world,” Lord Poltimore says, settling down with a cup of mint tea at the Sea Lounge of Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace and Tower.
We meet after the preview of a collection of rare antique jewellery that Sotheby’s is auctioning in London in April. It’s the second day of Lord Poltimore’s visit, and he is already somewhat overwhelmed by the changes he sees in Mumbai. Much as he expected, Lord Poltimore meets collectors and buyers who are not necessarily the seasoned, discerning ones he has known since his stint at Christie’s from 1977 to 2000 and at Sotheby’s since 2002. “Nowadays, I tell investors that it is wise to look at countries that are rapidly acquiring wealth, such as China, Russia, India and Latin America. People here are often willing to pay prices beyond a work’s economic value because they can afford to do so.”
And here comes the disappointment: “Most buyers I’m meeting here are new to the art world, they are not necessarily the most knowledgeable. I was amazed that most of them are unaware of how an auction is put together and conducted. Even the most gung-ho dealer or buyer is not clued in,” Lord Poltimore says.
Sotheby’s first auctioned contemporary Indian paintings from the Chester and Davida Herwitz Charitable Trust, in 1995. Herwitz—owner of a leather company based in Worcester, Massachusetts—had amassed a formidable collection of works by M.F. Husain, and also introduced the family to other Indian artists. That auction in New York, which featured largely non-resident Indian buyers, was really the beginning of Sotheby’s entry into India. By 1997, the auction house appointed Savita Apte, an art consultant and expert on South Asian art, as its representative.
But it was also around this time that an investigative documentary, Sotheby’s: The Inside Story, by British journalist Peter Watson was aired on British and American news channels. Watson accused the auction house of subverting laws and jeopardizing the cultural heritage of other countries, including India, in order to smuggle valuable objects into the sales block in London. Soon after, Sotheby’s introduced the Sotheby’s Award for Indian Artists—a sum of Rs3 lakh awarded to emerging artists for their contribution to Indian art, which some art critics interpreted as a “damage limitation exercise”. In 2001, Sotheby’s put an abrupt end to the award. After Apte, Sotheby’s has not appointed a representative in India, recently handing over the responsibility of Indian clients worldwide to one person working out of its London office.
Lord Poltimore was a seasoned employee of Christie’s while Sotheby’s made a shaky transition from being a part of the Indian art world with the award and a representative, to conducting auctions of Indian art only outside India through the late 1990s and early 2000s. But, he says, things are more transparent now: “Sotheby’s is a public company listed on the NYSE (New York Stock Exchange) since 1988 and every auction conducted and every commission charged has to be accounted for.”
His role is crucial in the editing of catalogues for the three markets that he often travels to and supervises—Russia, India and West Asia. All three are different markets, and Lord Poltimore’s biggest challenge is to include artists from these countries in its international auctions. On 28 February, while Lord Poltimore was in Mumbai, Sotheby’s Contemporary Art auction in London featured six Indian artists alongside works by Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst—Anju Dodiya, Ravinder Reddy, Shibu Natesan, T.V. Santhosh, Subodh Gupta and one of Lord Poltimore’s personal favourites, Raqib Shaw.
The Poltimore family (his wife Sally Poltimore owns the Lennox Art Gallery in London, and his two sons—Henry, 23, and Oliver, 21—are avid art enthusiasts) has a collection of works by artists from the 1700s to 2007. Much like most veteran collectors, Lord Poltimore is reluctant to talk about his acquisitions. But it’s unlikely that Eugene Delacroix, Casper David Friedrich, Rembrandt and other Impressionists would not feature in this collection. “I have always loved the Impressionists, especially Delacroix and Friedrich. And I would love to be painted by Rembrandt, he would give much-needed shades of light and shadow to my profile,” Lord Poltimore says. Among his Indian favourites are Anish Kapoor and Husain, and he is nursing a new appetite for installation artists such as Bill Viola and the witty and gimmicky anonymous artist who goes by the name, Banksy, whose work fetched, to Lord Poltimore’s great surprise, $1 million at the Sotheby’s Red Auction in New York in February.
Lord Poltimore grew up in Eastern Anglia, England, where his father was a dealer in antiques. At the age of 12, he lost his father—a political prisoner from World War II—and was informally trained by his godfather, Sir Jack Baer, who owned the Hazlitt Gallery on Ryder Road, London. His career in the art world began in this gallery. “Until I joined Christie’s, I was in the art world simply for the love of art. Much later, I naturally acquired the intuition that you need in this field. It’s not always enough to know an artwork’s market value. And being associated with a big name always helps,” Lord Poltimore says.
In 2000, towards the end of the dot-com boom, he started his own online auction set-up, eAuction Room. Among the memorable auctions his small team conducted was that of exhibits of the Millennium Dome, often referred to as The Dome—a mammoth dome-shaped building in south-east London that was built to house the Millennium Experience, an exhibition celebrating the beginning of the third millennium. “During this time, I was shocked by how ruthless people are when you are at the bottom of the pie, when nobody has heard of you. I now have healthy respect for the little person,” he says.
Back in London, Lord Poltimore looks forward to the Indian art auction on 19 March, and there’s not a hint of apprehension about dipping prices. “A lot of people in India connect the dip in auction prices in 2006-2007 to a correction. It is a very random association. If you examine the overall results in all the auctions of Indian art that have taken place, it will be an all-time high figure. The art market has little to do with the tidings of the stock market. We’ve often seen that when the stock market is in a slump, people turn towards art as a safe investment.”
He hopes to return for his third visit to a more knowledgeable community of Indian connoisseurs and buyers.
Born: 8 June 1957
Education: Schooling in Radley College, Oxfordshire
Work Profile: Joined Hazlitt Art Gallery, London, as a manager in 1975; joined as officer at the front desk of Christie’s, London, in 1977; became deputy chairman, Christie’s, in 1997; set up eAuction Room, an online auction house, in 2000; joined Sotheby’s in 2002 as consultant for 19th century and Impressionist paintings; deputy chairman, Europe and new markets, Sotheby’s, in 2007
Favourite Gadget: BlackBerry
Currently Reading: ‘Nemesis: The Battle for Japan 1944-45’ by Max Hastings
Other Interests: Rugby, Western classical and rock music, shooting, literature and history of the World Wars