A painting by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde set a record for an Indian artist at auction, after selling for 237 million rupees ($3.8 million) at Christie’s International Plc in Mumbai.
Gaitonde’s 1979 work was part of Christie’s inaugural sale in India on Dec. 19 that raised $15.6 million, more than twice the high pre-sale estimate of $8 million. More than 10 buyers competed for the untitled oil-on-canvas abstract painting during almost seven minutes of bidding, before the hammer went down to a U.S.-based client.
“Tonight’s event gives all the evidence we need to continue planting the Christie’s auction flag in India, Shanghai and Latin America in 2014,” Steven P. Murphy, Christie’s chief executive officer, said in an interview after the sale.
Christie’s first sale on Indian soil enables the London-based auction house to profit from growing wealth and sophistication among the country’s affluent class. It comes after the company’s first mainland Chinese auction in September, where it sold $25 million worth of watches, wine, jewelry, Asian and western art in Shanghai.
The 81-lot sale set 10 new artist records, with all 50 works from the estate of Kekoo Gandhy (1920-2012) and his wife Khorshed finding buyers. The results should provide a boost to the local art market despite India’s weaker economic growth and uncertainty over general elections in 2014.
“This was a step up for India, they got great prices for high-valued art,” said Mort Chatterjee, a Mumbai-based dealer. “The sale exceeded expectations and the single-owner sale set the room on fire.”
The previous auction record for an Indian artist was set in London by Christie’s in 2010 when a work titled “Saurashtra” by Syed Haider Raza sold for $3.5 million.
Hugo Weihe, Christie’s international director of Asian art, has described Gaitonde as the “Rothko of India,” whose work combines elements of Zen Buddhism, calligraphy and Rorschach tests.
While yesterday’s auction results were small compared with sales of Asian and Western art in Hong Kong, London or New York, where a single Francis Bacon work sold for $142.4 million in November, the India debut is all about networking and marketing, according to Christie’s Murphy.
“The objective for Christie’s is to be on the ground,” he said before the sale. “The sold total for this week’s sale is not the most important thing by any means. We plan to be here for the next 100 years.”
Christie’s and Sotheby’s hold South Asian art auctions in New York and London, and Indians living abroad provide an important source of business at auctions in New York, London and Dubai. The Mumbai sale is the first sale by an international auction house in India since Sotheby’s (BID) held one in New Delhi in 1992.
The number of high-net-worth individuals in India, those with at least $1 million in investable assets, grew by 22 percent in 2012 to 153,000, according to the Asia-Pacific Wealth Report by Capgemini and RBC Wealth Management, more than Hong Kong or Singapore, which have strong art-collector bases.
Indians have traditionally held their wealth in jewelry, gold, real estate and financial assets, and are now looking to art as an alternative investment, says Rajan Sehgal, managing director of private banking for the Indian Subcontinent and Non-Resident Indians at Credit Suisse Group AG (CSGN), the Swiss bank that sponsored the Mumbai sale.
Prominent Indian collectors include Usha Mittal, wife of billionaire industrialist Lakshmi Mittal, Reliance Industries Ltd. Chairman Mukesh Ambani and Kiran Nadar, wife of HCL Technologies Ltd. chairman Shiv Nadar.
Kekoo Gandhy was a framer and gallerist who played a seminal role in the art movement in the city formerly known as Bombay before and after Indian independence in 1947, developing close friendships with the most important 20th-century artists. Gallery Chemould, which he founded in 1963 in Mumbai, is run by his daughter Shireen Gandhy.
Sotheby’s, which raised $37 million in its first mainland auction in Beijing on Dec. 1, has no immediate plans to resume auctions in India. Instead it plans to bring traveling exhibitions to showcase art on sale outside the country.
“Only more recently are we starting to see more interest from India but it’s a developing story,” said Yamini Mehta, Sotheby’s international director of Indian and South Asian art.
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