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Recapping the auction scene in India and globally
Seemingly listless at the beginning of the year, the auction scene gradually gathered momentum, and maintained its positive bias throughout 2010. Sotheby's and Christie's registered impressive first-half revenues - up a whopping 140% and 67% respectively versus their corresponding fine art revenue figures last year, indicating the upswing and the resultant revival of their fortunes.

The leading market players focused on quality works in order to target the discerning buyers’ category. Incidentally, most top lots at prominent sales were dominated by traditional and modern art. Artists with strong international backing and visibility like Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta seemed to have greater scope and speed of recovery. Progressive modernists, such as FN Souza, VS Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta, Raza and Husain witnessed good demand.

Bharti Kher set a new auction record for a female contemporary Indian artist in June with her enigmatic elephant sculpture. The fibreglass and bindi work fetched Rs 6.94 crore ($1,493,947) at Sotheby’s auction in London. Her life-sized work, entitled ‘The Skin Speaks a Language Not its Own’, created history in an auction sale in June. ‘Wish Dream’, a monumental mural (16-piece; 24-by-13-ft) by Arpita Singh broke the record, fetching Rs 9.6 crore (close to $2.25 million) in December.

SH Raza set a world auction record for modern Indian art with his 1983 painting ‘Saurashtra’ (acrylic on canvas) sold for $3,486,965 (Rs.16,23,87,474.7), breaking the earlier record held by him for his ‘La Terre’. His ‘Bharatiya Samaroh’ fetched Rs.4.07 crore at Saffronart's autumn online auction (September 2010). The auction offered an exquisite collection of 90 works by 43 modern & contemporary Indian artists. It registered 76 percent sales.

Simultaneously, Christie’s ‘highest value Indian art sale’ as part of the South Asian Modern & Contemporary Art auction in September included exquisite works by SH Raza, Husain, Atul Dodiya, Anju Dodiya and Subodh Gupta. The event featured a remarkable selection of contemporary art from the region. On the other hand, its South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art auction in June sold all but 19 out of 223 lots, including a collection of over 150 works from the estate of late FN Souza (from the late 1930’s through to the 1990’s) that was almost a sell-out. The sale total of £7,013,400 (GBP) doubled the estimate, whereas Sotheby’s sale of South Asian Art brought an exceptional total of £5,465,550 - almost double the sum realized for the equivalent London sale last summer.

The most keenly watched auction of Indian art this season, of 12 paintings by Rabindranath Tagore, fetched prices between £91,250 and £313,250. An impressive nude by FN Souza made – more than four times the pre-sale high estimate of £80,000. An Untitled Self Portrait by Manjit Bawa brought £193,250, nearly double the pre-sale estimate. A rare bronze sculpture by Somnath Hore got £157,250, a new auction record price for the artist.

Earlier in March, The Osian’s Masterpieces Series Auction had on offer a wide range of fine art by some of India’s Modern & Contemporary Art masters. The proportion of lots sold was close to 60%. Saffronart managed to sell 75% of the lots, totaling $ 4.6 million, in its Spring Online Auction. At its Summer Auction, a new record was made for Jehangir Sabavala with ‘The Casuarina Line I’ grossing Rs 1.7 crore ($ 374,900). Its Annual Winter Online Art Auction featured 100 works by 43 modern & contemporary artists that closed with an impressive total of $7.1 million, registering excellent prices for several modernists like Raza, FN Souza, KG Subramanyan and Husain, indicating that the modern masters still remain highly sought-after.

The Modern Indian Art Online Auction by Asta Guru in August did exceedingly well. Anjolie Ela Menon’s ‘Man with Heart of Gold’ ($ 40,817, Rs. 1,836,780); Krishen Khanna’s work from ‘Bandwalla’ Series ($ 14,116, Rs. 635,220); Bhupen Khakhar’s Untitled watercolor on paper work ($ 11,952, Rs. 537,845); Laxma Gaud’s ‘Nude & Goat’ ($ 8,163, Rs. 367,356) and F N Souza Untitled Pen & Ink on paper work ($ 7,954, Rs. 357,936) fetched prices more than twice their estimates.

Other art auctions at the fag end of the year had some unusual works up for grabs. Bid and Hammer offered ‘Jatayu Vadha’ by Raja Ravi Varma and a rare Nicholas Roerich work in November. The auction house wanted to promote ‘unsung heroes’, such as Allah Bux and H Mazumdar. On their 10th anniversary, Asia Art Archive hosted an auction of internationally acclaimed artists like Anju Dodiya, Reena Saini Kallat and Jitish Kallat.

The strong auction results clearly suggest a consistent demand from seasoned collectors for top quality and rare works. Indeed recession, it looks like, is finally a thing of the past as far as the art market is concerned. Average auction prices and volumes for modern Indian art were back to the June 2008 peak levels. According to ArtTactic, the current year has been very good for the Indian art market. It’s a remarkable recovery.” Anders Peterson, who runs the London based analysis firm, opined that the current auction scene was much like a filtered version of the art market reality, adding that the works of proven provenance were more likely to sell.

Castlestone Management specializing in alternative assets foresees a 40 percent increase in prices over the next couple of years. It correlates the trend to rising equity prices, terming it a key indicator for analyzing the art markets trends. Collectors are feeling more confident in the art market and have switched to chasing crisp, primary-colored modernist works, a news report by Kelly Crow (The WSJ; November 6, 2010) states – a trend starkly evident in the Indian art market, as well. The focus is back on established modern artists, such as Gaitonde, Husain, Souza and Akbar Padamsee with ‘proven historical value’. Clearly the preference is for the Moderns although select contemporaries like Subodh Gupta, Riyas Komu and others continue to hold their sway.