Sotheby’s Indian sale in London on 23 May came divided neatly into two halves: traditional decorative arts followed by modern and contemporary Indian painting. With the current buoyant state of the contemporary art market, there was little doubt as to which would be most successful.
There was a sleepy start to the morning, with an array of colonial-period Indian decorative arts. After the first lot, a tiger-handled sword from the armoury of Tipu Sultan, ruler of Mysore, which made £33,600 ($60,480), a succession of inlaid Indo-European boxes, ebony furniture, carved ivories and textiles failed to generate much excitement.
Many of these Asia-trade artefacts retain their appeal as exotic interior decoration, but buyers lack confidence in discriminating between what is special and what is not. The only lot to stir up competitive bidding was an opulent pair of green glass “Mughal-style” chandeliers, made in Bohemia for the princely market in early 20th-century India. Estimated at £40,000 to £60,000, four telephone bidders quickly drove the price up to £136,800 ($246,240).
According to Sotheby’s expert Edward Gibbs, Indian objects with a more academic appeal have become harder to sell as taste has shifted from the scholarly to the decorative and the great connoisseur collectors of old have all but passed away. Buyers are also aware that Indian artefacts that are more than a century old are subject to an export bar once brought back into India, which potentially will have an impact on their resale value.
This has not prevented the market for Indian miniatures catching some of the buzz around modern Indian painting. Neville Tuli, the founder of Osian’s auction house in Bombay, spent nearly £40,000 ($72,000) on five miniatures, all at double their estimates.
But he encountered an equally determined competitor on the telephone who trumped him at £43,200 ($77,760) to secure a spectacular large-scale elephant procession scene from Kotah. From a small group of works by European artists on offer, Mr Tuli also paid £38,400 ($69,120) for a fine oil of The Hooghly River at Calcutta, 1869, by Belgian painter Jules Schaumburg.
As soon as the modern Indian section started, the buzz was palpable as the room filled with a new crowd of expensively dressed Indians.
Much of the heavy bidding came on the telephones, with only Mr Tuli and a couple of others holding their ground in the room. With six different paddle numbers accounting for the nine works that passed the £100,000 ($180,000) mark, competition at the top was fierce. According to Edward Gibbs, new buyers are regularly bidding for some of the most expensive lots.
As was the case at New York’s Asia Week sales at the end of March and at Bonham’s recent auction of works on paper in London, F.N. Souza emerged as the artist most in demand. The top lot was his 1966 roulette scene, The Chance, which sold for £265,600 ($477,000) against an estimate of £150,000 to £100,000, but it was Amsterdam Landscape, 1961 (est £60,000-£80,000) that sparked a real battle between three telephone bidders. There was applause in the saleroom when the hammer finally went down at £624,000 ($1.1m) making it the second highest price achieved for a Souza painting.
Mr Tuli was one of the under-bidders for this as well as for Akbar Padamsee’s Untitled 1960s landscape, which raced past its £60,000 to £80,000 estimate to make £276,800 ($498,240). Mr Tuli then bid strongly to get the artist’s Untitled Nude, 1962, for £310,400 ($558,720, est £100,000-£150,000), as well as an untitled work by Ram Kumar for £125,600 ($226,080, est £30,000-£40,000), bringing his morning’s expenditure to a handsome £663,000 ($1.25m).
In total the auction made £4,224,120 ($7,960,777), with 72% sold by lot and 90.8% by value, reflecting the strength of the second half of the sale. Such is the growth in the market for Indian painting that there is now talk of separate sales for modern and contemporary art. Packaging the older decorative arts of the subcontinent may prove a trickier problem.