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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Globally, the Indian art scene has never been so vibrant: Yamini Mehta

Yamini Mehta, international head of Indian and South Asian Art at the auction house Sotheby’s, says that the global market for Indian art "has never been more vibrant". On 18 October, the auction house holds its sale of Contemporary and Modern South Asian Art in London, the top lots of which feature works by Indian masters and modernists, many sourced from various European collections. In an email interview, Mehta speaks of trends in Indian art guiding auction sales and the hurdles that exists for India-based art collectors.

What are the highlights of the 18 October auction in London?

We are very excited to present an extremely important monumental painting by (F.N.) Souza (The Deposition: Burial of Christ, (1963) as our front cover lot. It ranks among his greatest paintings and represents one of the most powerful portrayals of the deposition of Christ. Coming from a private collection in Europe, it was painted during the time when Souza’s artistic prowess was at its height. The painting’s universal themes of loss and love contribute to the painting’s extraordinary wall power and will be of appeal to our truly international spread of clients.

The exceptional painting we are offering by (V.S.) Gaitonde, coming from a London-based collection—the top lot of our sale—features an abstract colour field of beautiful, uplifting tonality, in luminous greens, emeralds and turquoise, which differentiates it from the artist’s earlier phase of painting. It is emblematic of Gaitonde’s style in the 1970s and follows from his stint in the US on a Rockefeller Fellowship where he was exposed to the prevailing currents in painting as exemplified by Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman. We found an undated archival photograph in a recently published book on Gaitonde where he is standing next to the work when it was first exhibited at Taj Art Gallery in the 1970s and the painting looks as fresh as when it was painted. This complements another early Gaitonde paper work we have that is coming from the family of a noted Czech historian.

Sourcing works of this quality is not easy at all. Sometimes we know where things are and it may take years for a work to come to auction and other times we get inquiries out of the blue. A colleague likened sourcing to being in an orchard and waiting for the fruit to drop and being in the right place and time to catch it.

From the Sotheby’s: Jehangir Sabavala’s ‘Rice Fields, PalniHolls- II, 2008,’ estimated to be around £200,000-300,000.
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From the Sotheby’s: Jehangir Sabavala’s ‘Rice Fields, PalniHolls- II, 2008,’ estimated to be around £200,000-300,000.

What these works have in common is an incandescent quality to all of them.

In terms of contemporary Indian works, what should we expect?

The trends across the art world, and paralleling within the Indian scene, is a look at underrepresented or undervalued modernists and masters who are getting a critical reappraisal in museum exhibitions and academic publications. The Met Breuer, for instance, had their inaugural show on Nasreen Mohammedi, a landmark show initiated by the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art. The institutional exposure gives credence and confidence to collectors.

The Swiss estate that we are showing in this auction has wonderful works by K.H. Ara, which are painted in a high Impressionist style and palette and should be very attractive to collectors here. Another inventive artist who was part of New York art circles is Mohan Samant, who has not received his due and we are very excited to have some prime examples of his work.

I was also thrilled, for instance, in the run-up to the Bhupen Khakar show at the Tate Modern, that we are seeing more interest in the works of his contemporaries such as Gieve Patel, Sudhir Patwardhan, and Ghulamohammed Sheikh and strong prices as a result.

Another exciting trend that I think will manifest quickly over the next few years will be resurgence for contemporary artists working today as tastes change and develop. I foresee a newer and younger group of collectors participating in our auctions. They will be looking at art that speaks to their aesthetics and fits their interiors. I think we will see more hybrid collections combining contemporary Indian with contemporary international art. We will see some collectors design spaces around their art collections and we will see others commission works and/or pre-emptively build their spaces to house a future art collection. That being said, it is a great time to look at the artists who came into prominence in the last 10-15 years. They are now established and the masters of the future. We have a few contemporary artists featured in our sale. Most notably we have a 2007 work by Raqib Shaw painted with intricate details at an estimate of £30,000-50,000. He has been featured in our international contemporary sales and currently holds the record price for any South Asian contemporary artist when a large work of his sold with Sotheby’s for over US$5 million. The time is ripe to carefully expand the marketplace by adding works of younger artists and including different media into the mix.

Also Read: Art: Masters under the hammer

In Sotheby’s March sale of Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art, several lots went unsold. What were the reasons for this?

While we would love to have a 100% sell through rate, It’s extremely rare that all lots are sold in auctions, so we were pleased with the results. Over the past decade, more than 80% of the lots have sold above low estimate, and more than a third have sold double the low in our Indian and South East Asian category. So looking back at our March sale, it’s important to note that the auction was led by a monumental work by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde that was purchased by eminent patron and artist Bal Chhabda for his personal collection. It is known to be the largest work that Gaitonde has ever created on canvas and symbolises air, buoyancy and flight, selling for $2,770,000 (£1,942,633), the third highest price achieved for this artist at auction. Other highlights worth noting are a rare and important landscape Untitled (In the Garden) by Indian National Treasure artist, Amrita Sher-Gil, which sold for $1,570,000 (£1,101,059), a record price for a landscape by Sher-Gil. Additionally, an exquisite oil by Raja Ravi Varma, Untitled (Portrait of a Young Woman in Russet and Crimson Sari), sold for $586,000 (£410,969), almost double its high estimate and second highest price for the artist’s work at auction. It was part of the storied collection of Fritz Schleicher.

Another factor that demonstrates the health of the market in this field is the geographic spread of clients participating. What we saw from the results was just how international the spread of bidders and buyers in the sale. Over the last five years, our sales of Indian and South East Asian art have attracted participation from clients hailing from over 40 countries around the world (Asia, USA, Europe, Middle East, South Africa, etc.).

Where does the Indian art market stand at the moment considering the slump post 2008?

Globally, the Indian art scene has never been more vibrant. There’s huge interest, not only in our auctions, but also in the many major exhibitions dedicated to key Indian Modernists being staged across the globe.

In terms of Sotheby’s sales, over the last five years, Indian clients have purchased works at auction totalling $273 million (aggregate), and from 2014 to 2015 the number of bidders at auction increased by 7%.

And while we have seen measured and sustainable growth in the market for Modern and Contemporary South Asian art, more broadly speaking, in sales to our Indian clients in our global sales (e.g. Jewellery, Contemporary, Impressionist and Modern), we’ve seen the value spent more than double in the last four years, with the number of bidders up 45% for the same period of time.

Also Read: The search for future Modernists

What are the reasons for Gaitonde being such a hot favourite at auctions at the moment?

Following the major retrospective of the Gaitonde’s work in 2015 at the Guggenheim, New York and Venice, demand for this modern master’s works is at an all-time high. He also has a relatively small body of work compared to his contemporaries and his works are a fitting bridge between mid-20th century and contemporary collectors and appeals to a wide variety of aesthetic tastes.

What are the challenges, if any, that you face regarding the Indian art market. What could the state do to support the market?

There is one notable hurdle for India-based collectors acquiring art that is over 100 years old and that is the Antiquities Act (1972). Once a work of art is considered to be an antiquity and is imported into India, it can never be exported. The taste for Impressionist art is ever present in India, but if one were to import a work by Vincent Van Gogh dated 1916, the owner would be limited to selling within India only should they decide to sell the work in future. This reality of Indian legislation could play a large part in why we are more likely to see a Chinese billionaire pay $170 million for a Modigliani than a person of Indian origin.

Other challenges relate to currency controls that places limits on what an individual can buy and bring back to India.

The state can support the arts in so many ways—by investing in infrastructure and innovative programming by allowing more private-public partnerships, by getting corporates more involved, supporting biennales abroad and in India.

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