It was around this time last year that the grand Crystal Room at the 110-year-old Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai was being preened for Christie’s debut sales in India. The evening of December 19, 2013 broke 10 price records for artists such as Ramkinkar Baij, Nasreen Mohamedi, Ganesh Pyne, Bhupen Khakhar and others. The pièce de résistance was Vasudeo Gaitonde’s Untitled that sold for Rs 23.7 crore — the highest for a modern work of art sold in India. Will history repeat itself when Christie’s holds its second auction in India on December 11?
“There has been anticipation to see if the auction house could pull together an impressive catalogue the second time around,” says Neha Kirpal, founder and director, India Art Fair. Unlike last year, when the lots on sale came from one collection — the estate of Mumbai-based gallerists Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy — this year, the 80 lots have been sourced from galleries and collectors across the country. “The idea was to represent different art movements and regions. So there is the Bengal school of art represented by the Tagores and Nandalal Bose, Progressives such as Gaitonde, Mehta and F N Souza, and other leading names such as Jamini Roy and Bawa,” says Sonal Singh, head of sales, Christie’s.
Untitled (Falling Bull) by Tyeb Mehta, estimate price: Rs 8.5 crore to Rs 12 crore
“The works that caught my eye were Mehta’s Untitled (Falling Bull), Ram Kumar’s figurative work and an early Raza work,” says Roshini Vadehra of Delhi-based Vadehra Art Gallery, who was at the preview in New Delhi. Incidentally, the work by Mehta has the highest reserve price of Rs 8.5-12 crore. There is also a significant work by Gaitonde, painted in vibrant hues of green, estimated at Rs 5.50-7 crore.
Are these realistic prices when the economy is only beginning to breathe a little freely? Singh counters, “Look at the Gaitonde art. This is one of his last paintings. Keeping that in mind, it is competitively priced.” Vadehra concurs: “The market is never in a slump for great quality works. Great works always find buyers at top prices.” She adds that Mehta’s Mahisasura, which sold for over Rs 19 crore last year, was two-thirds the size of the painting under the hammer this year. “Personally,” she says, “I find this painting stronger than the one last year and the estimate is extremely attractive for this quality and scale of work.”
Dominus Aeris – Escape 13 – Search by Thukral & Tagra, estimate price: Rs 12 lakh to Rs 18 lakh
Other lots include works by Nasreen Mohamedi sourced from the collection of theatre veteran Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, Souza’s Family, appearing at an auction for the first time ever, and Rabindranath Tagore’s pocketbook featuring some of his earliest poems, manuscripts and drawings. “Last year, the country was facing an unstable political environment. Today, with a government in place, people are feeling optimistic. An auction is largely based on sentiment rather than logic,” says Kirpal.
The auction will be held at The Taj Mahal Palace, Mumbai on December 11
Untitled by Subodh Gupta, estimate price: Rs 20 lakh to Rs 30 lakh
THIS YEAR, THE AUCTION WILL FEATURE 10 CONTEMPORARY pieces donated by artists such as Subodh Gupta, Anish Kapoor, Bharti Kher, Anita Dube, Dayanita Singh, Atul Dodiya and Thukral & Tagra that will benefit Khoj, the artist residency programme established in 1997. “We are very honoured to have been asked to sell 10 contemporary art pieces to benefit Khoj. We are sure that after the recent success of Indian contemporary art in our Hong Kong sales, we will be able to increase this section in the coming years,” says Sonal Singh of Christie’s.
The works being featured this year are those that can be easily accessed by people for their living rooms or lobby. “We wanted people to be able to afford a small Kher or a beautiful Kapoor. These are high quality artworks, not old works that artists have dug out from their attic — some like Thukral & Tagra have made new works for the auction,” says Pooja Sood, director, Khoj. For the contributing artists, this is a tribute to Khoj’s enduring legacy of being a platform for new and experimental art. “Khoj was established by a group of artists such as Gupta and Kher. At that time there were no contemporary museums or cutting edge spaces in India. It was the earliest platform for contemporary artists,” says Jiten Thukral of Thukral & Tagra.
Journey of an artwork: from the collector to the auction house — Nasreen Mohamedi
A PREVIOUSLY UNSEEN SET OF THREE DRAWINGS and two canvases by Mohamedi will be up for bidding. “I wanted to give these to Christie’s as it was difficult to look after such delicate works of art in the home environment,” says Neelam Mansingh Chowdhry, form whose collection they have been sourced. Some of these are pasted on plywood. Chowdhry felt that as a custodian of Mohamedi’s legacy, these works shouldn’t disintegrate, but should be shared with art enthusiasts.
She recalls her first brush with Mohamedi’s art in the early 1970s, when she had just completed her master’s degree in art history. “I reached Delhi and met Roshen Alkazi. She was hosting an exhibition of Mohamedi’s works. I sat in front of the works for a long time and felt something very powerful. It was a mesmerising aesthetic experience,” says Chowdhry. At that time Mohamedi had been staying in a Nizamuddin barsaati and Chowdhry decided to pay her a visit. This was the pre-telephone days when people could just walk into homes unannounced and still be welcomed with a smile. “Her house was a reflection of her works — minimalist and orderly. I was 21 at the time and she must have been 36 or 38. Even at point, she was a valued and admired artist. But she never made me feel less about myself. In fact, a lot of things happened in my life because of Mohamedi. She encouraged me to take up theatre and I joined the National School of Drama,” says Chowdhry who shared a beautiful relationship with the artist till she passed away in 1990.