Indian Artist Souza’s Work May Raise $3.4 Million at Auction

"Self Portrait" by the 20th-century Indian painter Francis Newton Souza. The gouache was shown in the 2005 Souza exhibition at Tate Britain and was estimated at 12,000 pounds to 18,000 pounds at auction. It sold for 61,250 pounds. Source: Christie's Images via Bloomberg

An auction of works by India’s priciest modern artist, Francis Newton Souza, is expected to raise as much as 2.2 million pounds ($3.4 million) as dealers look for a recovery in the country’s art market.

A separately catalogued collection of more than 150 lots of paintings, drawings, prints and sketch books by Souza will be offered at Christie’s International in London on June 9. The painter died in Mumbai in 2002 and works are being offered directly from his estate, the auction house said in an e-mailed statement.

Auction prices for modern and contemporary Indian art have risen -- and fallen -- spectacularly in recent years. Prices for contemporary works increased seven-fold between 2000 and 2008, according to the French-based database Artprice. Average auction prices for modern and contemporary Indian works are now respectively 18 percent and 63 percent lower than they were at their peak in 2008, said the London- based research company ArtTactic.

“There’s been a shift in the auction market toward the moderns,” Anders Petterson, founder of ArtTactic, said in an interview. “Nothing much is happening for contemporary works and there’s a lot of uncertainty about values. Indian buyers are looking for artists of known substance.” The latest Indian Confidence Survey by ArtTactic will be published May 5.

Souza was voted the modern artist most likely to have a market with high importance in 10 years time by respondents in ArtTactic’s Indian Confidence Report in November 2009. He was a co-founder of India’s postwar Progressive Artists Group, and in June 2008, at the height of the art-market boom, his 1955 painting “Birth” sold at Christie’s in London for 1.3 million pounds, a record for a modern Indian work of art.

Price Attraction

“The estimates for the Souza auction will be about half the level they were then,” Hugo Weihe, a Christie’s senior vice-president, said in an interview. “We wanted to be able to price the works conservatively to attract new collectors.”

The sale will include groups of more than a dozen drawings by Souza with low estimates of 10,000 pounds per lot. Thirty-nine oil paintings will be offered. The most highly valued is the expressionistic 1962 work “Red Curse,” estimated at 150,000 pounds to 250,000 pounds, that the artist painted on black satin while living in London, said Christie’s.

A watercolor self-portrait from 1949 that was included in the Souza exhibition held at Tate Britain in 2005 is expected to fetch as much as 18,000 pounds.

“The sale represents the final dispersal of the artist’s Estate,” said Weihe. “It’s the first time an auction can show a complete overview of his life.”

(Scott Reyburn writes about the art market for Bloomberg News. Opinions expressed are his own.)

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