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India’s modern and contemporary art market wobbles

John Elliott

TyebMehta recrd price Christies June 9 11 8025 842 239x300 India’s modern and contemporary art market wobblesIt looks as if the top end of the Indian modern and contemporary art market is wobbling. Recent auctions in London and on-line have shown mixed results, with works by recognised modern masters such as M.F.Husain, who died earlier this month, and F.N.Souza sometimes not selling well, while demand for Subodh Gupta, an Indian contemporary poster boy, has slumped.

On the other hand, Tyeb Mehta, a top member of the Husain and Souza-led Progressives’ group, hit a record sale price of £1.97m ($3.24m) including buyers’ premium at Christie’s in London earlier this month for an untitled figure on rickshaw, and also did well elsewhere.

A different sort of record was set last week by Mehta with Kali, which received a bid of $1m (on its way to a $1.31m sale) through a mobile-phone bidding application on Mumbai-based Saffronart’s on-line auction. Bids (successful and unsuccessful) totalling $3.86m were received on this mobile route, which Saffronart says is unique among leading auction houses.

Saffronart also reports new Indian buyers are emerging for works in the in the lower ranges around $150,000. Higher up the price ladder however, the news is not so good. Indian modern and contemporary art boomed in the early and mid-2000s, then slumped and began to recover two years ago.

Art Tactic, a London-based analysis firm, says that auction houses responded to disappointing results in this year’s March auctions by lowering estimates “to try to re-ignite buyer interest”. However the market is now moving on a “negative trend as other global markets are on the rise”, and the London auctions came in 21% below estimates and 18% below the March results.

This underlines the fact that, despite its earlier boom, Indian art has never captured China’s level of international attention. A China record of $10.2m, more than three times India’s highest-ever price, was paid at a Sotheby’s Hong Kong auction in April for a three-panelled (triptych),Forever Lasting Love, by Zhang Xiaogang, a top contemporary mainland Chinese artist.

By contrast, Subodh Gupta, who leapt to the forefront of Indian contemporary artists in the mid 2000s with paintings and installations of shiny pots and pans and other apparent aspects of modern Indian life, has not done well. Last year in London an untitled 67×90in oil on canvas of an airport luggage trolley fetched only £180,000 ($250,000) at Sotheby’s, which was about a fifth of a 2008 price for a very similar trolley.

This year at Sotheby’s there were no bidders for a vast 16ftx12ft Gupta installation of stainless steel pails (estimated at £300,000-£400,000). An oil painting of saucepans pitched around last year’s trolley price also failed to sell. Two more works did not get buyers at Christie’s, while Saffronart wisely did not include him. Other Indian contemporaries however did better. A large Atul Dodiya painting of the artist’s father in Dodiya’s early photo-realist style fetched £265,250 at Christie’s. Jitish Kallat also sold at Christies and Sotheby’s but failed with one work at Saffronart

The main recovery has been among the moderns, with India’s record price of £2.4m ($3.5m) being achieved by Syed Haidar Raza, another leading veteran Progressive, at Christie’s in London last year. It is here that warning signs are emerging, with top names such as Raza, Souza and Husain sometimes failing to sell for works that are either not regarded as being an artist’s best or are over-priced. Prices for Husain, who died on June 9, the day of the Christie’s auction, are likely to be tested in New York auctions in September.

Hugo Weihe, who runs the Christie’s auctions, says that the results shows that it is “necessary to get the quality and the price right to achieve sales”. Dealers talk about difficulty finding and persuading buyers to offer good works that will fetch top prices and it is also necessary to fill auction halls with potential buyers, which Sotheby’s seems to have failed to do spectacularly this year.

Its London auction on May 31 (badly timed on the morning after a bank holiday weekend) realised sales of only £1,620,150 ($2,678,756) compared with Christie’s £4.3m. It sold only half the works available and failed to move the three highest priced works – by Husain, Raza and Gupta.

The market has been flooded with works by Husain and Souza in recent years, which has affected demand. Last summer, Christie’s had a spectacular sale of Souza drawings and paintings that were being sold by his family’s estate. This year there were more works owned by the family, but they did not generate the same excitement or prices.

Tyeb Mehta, who died in 2009, continues however to score well, partly because his works are so distinctive, often reflecting with strong shapes and colours the hard life of India’s poor, and partly because he was not nearly so prolific as other Progressives.

This is not a market for investors looking for quick profits, but it is good for committed collectors, newcomers and established buyers, with the best works selling well if offered at sensible prices. The market is waiting to discover what happens now to Husain – there are many of his works waiting to be sold but it is not clear yet when they will emerge, nor what the appetite will be.

A slightly longer version of this article, with more illustrations is on John Elliott’s Riding the Elephant blog – http://ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com/

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  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NMFYA6UY64QHXFALSHHNBE4JOQ Korin Ikeda

    I admit I do not understand art markets since many “artists” like Emmin and Hurst seem to me to be artless and a product of this art market. India has always been great at art and their ancient and modern art is excellent. I can only think that the buyer being predominantly Indian may be the reason. I have a feeling that the Indian rich are not as cultivated as their intellectuals. They may have been trying to follow the international trends
    initially only for monetary gain but their glitzy Bollywood taste in culture is at root no good for confidence in higher art.


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