By: John Elliott

Christie’s and Saffronart this week established Mumbai as an internationally significant center for Indian art auctions with record prices being achieved, not just for established modern artists, whose prices have been steadily climbing with three overall world records in the last three months, but also for classical miniature painting and sculptures that are now attracting new collectors.

Last night, at the Christie’s auction, an untitled 55in x 40 in oil on canvas by Vasudeo Gaitonde, who died in 2001, was sold for US$4.4 million. Well above the estimate of US$1.9 to US$2.3 million, the US$4.4 million was both a world auction record for the artist, beating an earlier US$3.8 million record, and also the highest auction price achieved for any modern Indian work of art. It was bought by an international collector telephoning in from outside India in a keenly fought bidding contest.

The Christie’s sale totaled US$14.7million, the highest for any auction held in India, beating the previous record set by the auction house at its first Indian sale two years ago. This is the result of careful selection of works that have not been trailing round the auction circuit, backed by intensive international marketing and the buzz of an auction in Mumbai’s iconic waterfront Taj hotel.

The night before, Saffronart which is the leading Indian auction house, staged its first sale of classical Indian art (which cannot be exported), and had the rare achievement of a 100% sale of the 70 lots on offer.

The overall sales total of US$2.5million included a record total price of US$981,000, four times the estimates, for an elegant 15th-16th century 33-in high bronze statue of Parvati, the Hindu goddess of love, from the collection of a famous Bombay architect. Though below prices achieved abroad, Saffronart said this was the highest auction price paid in India for any classical work of art.

It was the result of persistent bidding by two collectors who, coaxed slowly in very small US$5,000 steps by Hugo Weihe, Christie’s former auctioneer for India sales, brought the hammer price up. Weihe later said it felt like the moment in 2005 when he brought the hammer down in New York on a US$1.45 million bid for a Tyeb Mehta work, marking the beginning of a boom in modern Indian art auction prices.

Saffronart also set a new international benchmark for Basohli miniature paintings that were done in the Himalayan foothills in the 1700s. Out of a set of four, two produced a new record Indian price for a Pahari (from the mountains) work of US$145,000.

In line with other recent auctions, these results show that good prices are being paid by serious collectors for the best works, especially for those with good provenance, a point that both auction houses have stressed this week.

Saffronart’s miniature paintings came from a famous collection made in the mid-1900s by a British army officer, Colonel R.K.Tandon, triggering rival claims of the relative superior provenance virtues with Christie’s, which had a classical section in its auction for the first time. This included miniature paintings from the collections of the Maharajas of Bikaner in Rajasthan, with members of the family in the auction room, possibly marking a new departure for these families selling their old collections.

Till now, the main collectors of miniature paintings, especially Mughal works which fetch higher prices, have been in the UK and US, plus the Middle East, buying and selling works that were taken abroad many years ago and thus were not caught by the current ban on the export of antiquities.

Indian collectors have been rarer. Specialists however believe that this now could be changing as Indian collectors of the modern art realize the attractiveness and prestige of the best miniatures and sculptures, many of which can be obtained for around US$10,000. That is far less than they might pay for the best modern works, and is also lower than prices being paid abroad.

Last week, Saffronart also had a successful sale of works on paper by F.N. Souza, one of the country’s most famous artists, with 83 of the 85 lots on offer going for US$846,182. Peasants in Goaan early (1947) 20in x13in oil on paper, fetched the top price of US$36,364.

The Christie’s auction was slightly blighted by an allegation from a Dubai gallery owner that two works, including a major one, Bindu, by Syed Haider Raza that was estimated to fetch up to US$2.3 million were not genuine. Christie’s rejected the allegation and said Raza himself had recently been photographed with the work at a preview of the sale. Bidding however stopped below the reserve price, so the work did not sell.

The previous record price for Indian modern art was paid achieved at a Christie’s auction in New York in September when US$3.5million( US$4 million including buyer’s premium) was bid for Birth, a monumental 8ft x 4ft oil on board by Souza. The previous record price of US$2.6 million for a work by Souza, who died in 2002, was set just a week earlier at a Saffronart auction in Delhi. His  5 ft x 4 ft Man and Woman Laughing went to for a hammer price of US$2.6 million including the premium.

Taken together these results, with high prices for the top works and high percentages of total sales, confirm that collectors react to strong marketing by the auction houses and are willing to pay substantial prices for the best works.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent.  His blog, Riding the Elephant, can be found at the bottom right corner of Asia Sentinel’s home page.