Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  The search for future Modernists

The contemporary Indian art community is likely to be watching with keen interest the proceedings of Christie’s upcoming South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art Auction in New York on 14 September. After several seasons, the international auction house is pointedly bringing back to the hammer a number of contemporary Indian artists, indicating a renewed confidence in their saleability.

The highlights of the auction include works by contemporary artists such as Bharti Kher, Atul Dodiya, Alwar Balasubramaniam and Ranjani Shettar, as well as works by the “trophy artists", V.S. Gaitonde and F.N. Souza, who have done consistently well at auctions. The September auction, which will be part of the Asian Art Week in New York, also pays homage to three pioneering Indian artists who passed away this year: S.H. Raza, K.G. Subramanyan and Jeram Patel.

Of course, the high point of the auction will be an untitled painting made by Gaitonde in Bombay in 1970, when he was considered to be at his peak. This painting, sourced from the collection of the National Centre for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, had featured in New York’s Soloman R Guggenheim Museum retrospective of Gaitonde’s works in 2014-15 as representative of this period of his career, and is estimated at $1,800,000-2,200,000. Gaitonde holds the record auction price for modern Indian art, with an untitled work achieving $4,384,777 at a Christie’s 2015 sale.

According to Deepanjana D. Klein, senior vice-president and international head of department, Indian and Southeast Asian Antiquities and South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, the art auction house has been working for over a year to select the contemporary artists and works that would form a part of their lots. “There were a lot of artists who had been forgotten since 2008," she says. The Indian art market has been in a slump since the financial crisis eight years ago. Klein, however, notes that there is the return of an aspect of stability, driven by serious collectors rather than the speculators who drove up the prices unrealistically in the pre-2008 market.

The question for Christie’s, she says, was really when to bring these artists back into auction. “We have to be really careful bringing in contemporary works. All these younger contemporary artists have a following, they have galleries representing them. So we feel that if, at an auction, they don’t sell, we do a disservice instead of doing them good. An auction is, after all, the only place where prices are made available to the public." Incidentally, at the March 2016 Sotheby’s auction of Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art in New York, of the 111 lots, as many as 43 went unsold. The big-ticket sales here were works by the auction reliable V.S. Gaitonde, Raja Ravi Varma and, from among the contemporaries, Bhupen Khakhar, who is currently the subject of an exhibition at Tate Modern, London. While a work by Amrita Sher-Gil sold for less than the estimated price, the casualties included some works by artists such as Arpita Singh, Atul Dodiya, Krishen Khanna, Zarina, Ram Kumar and Tyeb Mehta, which remained unsold.

Having decided to hedge their bets with the contemporaries, Christie’s has been careful not to exaggerate the prices. The estimated prices for some works are considerably lower than the prices that the artists realized in auctions during the golden period, with a fair number of artworks being priced in the range of $4,000-8,000. “The prices we’re seeing today are the real prices," Klein insists.

“The greats continued to command a great price (even after 2008)," she says. Besides having a finite body of work, there were no speculators in this market, ensuring that the rise in prices of Modern art was a healthy, organic process, unlike that of contemporary art, which suffered as a result.

Christie’s decision to showcase contemporary Indian artists has been influenced in large part by the increasing interest being shown by Western museums in Indian artists. If Tate Modern has an ongoing retrospective of Bhupen Khakhar, a retrospective of Nasreen Mohamedi concluded at the Met Breur in New York this June. While the Guggenheim showed Gaitonde in 2014-15, Hammer Museum in Los Angeles exhibited Zarina in 2012, while The Art Institute of Chicago has shown Jitish Kallat and Nilima Sheikh in the past five years. “We felt this is the moment (to bring them in again)," says Klein. And especially since the auction was happening in New York. While Pakistani art does well in London, Klein points out that New York is where Indian art has many more serious buyers, both high quality trophy piece collectors as well as younger American collectors looking at the contemporaries, who look at South Asian art as growth markets.

“We are the tastemakers," says Klein, speaking assuredly of the selection of works in the auction, of their “search for the future modernists". If Christie’s shows confidence that “this is the artist that is going to make it", collectors feel reassured of the work, she adds.

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