Christie’s Expands With First India Art Auction in Mumbai

Christie’s International Plc will hold its inaugural auction in India with the offering of $8 million of modern and contemporary South Asian art in Mumbai.

The sale of 83 works set for Dec. 19 will be led by modern master Tyeb Mehta’s (1925-2009) work “Mahishasura,” which is estimated to sell for 75 million rupees ($1.2 million) to 95 million rupees. Works by Syed Haider Raza, who holds the record for the most expensive Indian artist, are also included.

Increasing affluence in India and China, where Christie’s and Sotheby’s both held their first auctions this year, is creating a growing base of collectors that international houses are keen to tap. While the expected auction results are small compared with sales in Hong Kong, London or New York, the India debut allows for networking and marketing, according to Steven Murphy, Christie’s chief executive officer.

“The objective for Christie’s is to be on the ground,” Murphy said. “The sold total for this week’s sale is not the most important thing by any means.”

The sale is seen as an important bellwether of the health of the local art market, which went into steep decline after the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008, said Girish Shahane, a Mumbai-based curator and art critic.

“Everybody who bought got their fingers burned, and a couple of art investment funds had trouble paying back investors,” he said. “A lot is riding on this sale. It’s really a marker of whether the market can move forward.”

Indian Soil

Christie’s and Sotheby’s hold South Asian art auctions in New York and London, and Indians living abroad are an important segment of business at auctions in New York, London and Dubai. The Mumbai sale is Christie’s initial foray onto Indian soil, and the first auction by an international auction house since Sotheby’s held a sale 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.

“China has already developed a very strong indigenous market for its own art,” said Hugo Weihe, Christie’s international director of Asian art. “India is a few years behind but we see similar, enormous possibilities. There is obviously great wealth and great art.”

Indian Rothko

Highlights of the sale include Vasudeo S. Gaitonde’s untitled 1979 oil-on-canvas abstract work with a high estimate of 85 million rupees. In June another of his works sold for 698,500 pounds ($1.1 million) at Sotheby’s in London.

Weihe describes Gaitonde as the “Rothko of India” whose works combine elements of Zen Buddhism, calligraphy and Rorschach tests.

Bolstering the sale are works by Nobel Literature Prize laureate Rabindranath Tagore and Amrita Sher-Gil that are deemed by the Indian authorities as “National Art Treasures” and non-exportable. Both are expected to command several hundred thousand dollars.

Raza’s work titled “Saurhastra” sold for $3.5 million at Christie’s London in 2010, making it the most expensive Indian painting sold at auction.

The sale is anchored by 52 works from the estate of Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy. Kekoo was a framer and gallerist who played a seminal role in the art movement in Bombay before and after Indian independence in 1947, developing close relationships with the most important 20th-century artists.

Top Provenance

“There is a strong personal angle to each and every work,” said Sonal Singh, associate director of South Asian modern and contemporary art at Christie’s in Bombay. “That you won’t get with any other collection in India.”

The collection, considered one of the most important in terms of provenance and history, offers works from as low as 60,000 rupees to $500,000, Singh said.

The decision to stage auctions within India also reflects the failure of South Asian works to attract much buying interest in the modern and contemporary Asian sales staged twice a year in Hong Kong. A few years ago Christie’s included several South Asian artists in its Hong Kong catalogs. Art from the subcontinent was absent from its most recent November sales.

Christie’s held its first auction in China in September in Shanghai, where it sold $25 million of watches, wine, jewelry and art. It is the first foreign auction house to operate in China without a local partner.

On Dec. 1, Sotheby’s raised $37 million in its first mainland auction, setting a record for Chinese-French artist Zao Wou-Ki, whose abstract painting sold for $14.7 million.

The “South Asian Art” auction takes place at 7 p.m. at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai, with viewing from Dec. 17 to Dec. 19. The auction exhibition is sponsored by Credit Suisse Group AG.

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