3rd Dec. 2002

Prices soar in art mart Kishore Singh Published : December 3, 2002 Recessionary trends in the market be dammed, the art bazaar is doing very well, thank you, as paintings fetch record prices that has sellers in a tizzy. The recently auctioned triptych by Tyeb Mehta at a New York Christie's auction had fetched Rs 1.5 crore, creating a new benchmark that M F Husain toppled over the weekend with a privately retained panel that he sold to an American NRI for Rs 2 crore. And prices, it seems, are going to continue increasing as the auction mart in the country gets savvier. That it's on to a good thing is apparent in volumes alone - contemporary art has been on the block in three almost back-to-back auctions. Bowring's, which had previously burned its fingers on a sale of film memorablia, has bounced back confidently when it managed to set a new record for a work sold at any auction in India. A work by Ravi Varma, estimated to fetch Rs 30-40 lakh, went on the hammer at Rs 56 lakh, setting a record for the artist. Another Ravi Varma canvas estimated at Rs 20-35 lakh, fetched Rs 36 lakh. A Nicholas Roerich also overshot its estimate and bagged Rs 15 lakh. Total sale proceeds from the auction were Rs 4 crore. Predictably, deputy chairman Patrick Bowring was ecstatic because quality and rarity were the determining factors, often producing prices well above expectation. Barely had the Bowring's buzz died down when Saffronart's online auction (from December 1-4) has begun with a high sense of excitement. Hoping to capitalise on Tyeb Mehta's new crowning, collector-founders Minan and Dinesh Vazirani have put a canvas from Mehta's same series on the catalogue jacket. Obviously, they're hoping buyer hysteria will repeat itself through the online auction, and the estimate for the single panel (Rs 47.5-62.5 lakh) is based on the same estimate. Minan Vazirani points out other works in the 187-lot collection under the hammer that she considers significant - two works by F N Souza from his period in London, a few Sakti Burmans, two Jogen Choudhurys and a few Ram Kumars - though they're fairly standard fare on the auctioneer's block, and unlikely to steal the limelight from the Mehta. But then, the serious (as opposed to the charity) auction market is still "very nascent", says Vazirani. "The market has not matured sufficiently; buyers are just learning about and getting used to the process of bidding in auctions, and sellers are beginning to better understand how an auction can be beneficial." They'll have to prove fast learners if they hope to cash in on what may just turn out to be the most significant auction of the year. Osian's hock, on December 5, includes masterpieces and museum quality Indian modern and contemporary paintings. Don't sweat the small stuff because estimates on this 150-lot sale at NCPA, Mumbai are deliberately high. "There are probably more masterpieces in this auction than any other previously held," says curator Neville Tuli who, like Vazirani, believes the market in India is at a stage of complete infancy. There are, of course, the usual suspects on sale - Tuli listing particular works by Sailoz Mookherjea, D P Roychowdhury, Rabin Mondal, Sultan Ali, Devayani Krishna, Ambadas, Biren De, Rameshwar Broota, Ranbir Kaleka, K H Ara, Sudhir Patwardhan, Navjot, S H Raza, Ganesh Haloi and Laxman Shreshtha as personal favourites. His inventory is based on the fact that many of these works have not been sold before, have been rarely shown, and are, often, from the artists' private collections. As such, they are significant because they represent either a turning point in an artist's work, or a rare representation. "These artists have given old, key works for the auction which they would only have parted with for serious international quality exhibitions." Estimates, naturally, are on a high, but that Tuli says is because of the quality of a curated auction. "The pre-selection of the curator is today the premium which people are willing to pay because they have come to realise that as the market matures, the quality of the specific work of art will dominate all concerns, whether it is regarding its inclusion in a major collection, or for re-sale considerations." As collectors bid for these rare works, and prices spiral, it's time for corporate India to debate the merits of entering the art market; not as corporate buyers, but as a business opportunity that has just begun to open up in India. Tuli is aware of this. "The financial world and institutions will slowly get involved more deeply once the economics of the whole infrastructure-building process is discussed in detail, and the scale of wealth to be recycled understood in a clearer way."

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