PNB fraud accused Nirav Modi's art collection is estimated to fetch Rs30-50 crore in the 26 March auction to be conducted by Saffronart in Mumbai. (Mint)
PNB fraud accused Nirav Modi's art collection is estimated to fetch Rs30-50 crore in the 26 March auction to be conducted by Saffronart in Mumbai. (Mint)

It's Art vs Taint as Nirav Modi's collection is auctioned

  • Nirav Modi's art collection—that includes paintings by Raja Ravi Varma and V.S. Gaitonde—is being auctioned by Saffronart
  • The auction is part of income tax department's efforts to recover some of the 14,000 crore swindled in the PNB fraud case

Mumbai: Much like his unusual jewellery designs, fugitive diamond merchant Nirav Modi’s art collection is celebrated by art lovers in India. But now that the treasure trove of paintings by famous modernists and contemporary artists—from Raja Ravi Varma to V.S. Gaitonde—is going under the hammer, there’s just one little unknown that piques the interest of Indian art experts.

Will the 26 March auction—an attempt by law-keepers to try and recover some of the estimated 14,000 crore that Modi allegedly stole from Punjab National Bank (PNB)—dissuade buyers worried about their provenance? Or will buyers actually be attracted by this association?

Would the Raja Ravi Varma (estimated price 12-18 crore) hanging on your wall add value to your collection or will the association with the jeweller (last spotted in London hailing a cab) take some of the shine off it?

An untitled work from 1973 by V.S. Gaitonde, part of Nirav Modi's art collection.
An untitled work from 1973 by V.S. Gaitonde, part of Nirav Modi's art collection.

“Astute buyers would focus on the quality of the works, and the potential benefit of adding a particular asset to their holdings. It is crucial to consider that the personality is tainted, not the works in his collection. Around 12-15% of the offered works would qualify as important and highly collectable," said Arvind Vijaymohan, chief executive officer (CEO) of Artery India, a Delhi-based art intelligence and sales advisory firm.

Mumbai-based Saffronart, which has been appointed by the income tax department to auction the Nirav Modi art collection, estimates the total sale to be worth 30-50 crore. The works of art, all from the collection of Camelot Enterprises Pvt. Ltd, one of Modi’s companies, will be sold in 68 lots as part of its Spring Live auction.

Dinesh Vazirani, CEO of Saffronart, said this was the first time the income tax department had contacted a professional auction house to conduct an art auction.

A Raja Ravi Varma from Nirav Modi's art collection.
A Raja Ravi Varma from Nirav Modi's art collection.

But people in the art world indicate that this is Saffronart’s second auction of seized assets, the first having been conducted seven years ago after Yes Bank received assets from a defaulter. Vazirani declined to confirm this, stating that as per industry practices, Saffronart doesn’t reveal the names of sellers or buyers.

In the art market, the history of ownership comes at a premium, often dictating price estimates.

Vijaymohan said provenance plays both ways, citing the instance of the Christie’s auction of the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller held in 2018. “In that instance, provenance was the ruler. You weren’t buying a Monet, you were buying a Rockefeller. In the case of the Nirav Modi art collection, the provenance shouldn’t be given undue weight, and the focus should remain trained on considering if there are works that qualify as significant and rare."

But gallerist Puneet Shah, who has been collecting art for 12 years, said a public auction on behalf of the government should assure bidders of a clean title. “I don’t think there will be any ambiguities and (collectors) will be supporting the government in making their recoveries," he said.

Mumbai-based art consultant Farah Siddiqui Khan said Nirav Modi’s art collection is young, built over just around a decade. “The works are not inherited and have been purchased either from auctions or directly from artists. I am sure the paperwork will be sound and the authenticity of the works will be assured.

“Most Indians are superstitious when it comes to buying property or antiquity, but not so in the case of art. For all you know, there may be an interesting twist—that you want to own a piece that was once in the collection of Nirav Modi. With this association, the auction may reach an audience that generally isn’t interested in art," said Khan.

Among the lots is a painting by Gaitonde, the estimate for which Saffronart has not announced yet. Gaitonde is the highest selling Indian artist in an auction and this particular work was previously shown at a seminal exhibition at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in 2014-15.

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