By: John Elliott

There is a new kid on the block in the world of Indian modern art auctions and it’s beating the market leaders. It is Mumbai-based Asta Guru, which took the market by storm this week with a two-day on-line auction that yielded total sales of Rs891.6 million (U$13.77 million).

That beat other international and Indian auction houses in the current season and was the second highest ever after a Christie’s equivalent US$14.7 million result in Mumbai in December 2015.

The auction yielded two record prices, including one for a work by a well-known but not top-selling Indian artist, Manjit Bawa, and it just missed a record for a work by Tyeb Mehta, one of the most famous and highly priced members of the mid-20th century Progressives “moderns” group.

Manjit Bawa’s record-breaking oil on canvas

The big surprise was that Asta Guru’s total (which the auction house calculated atUS$12.71 million), was higher than Christie’s South Asian modern art auction in New York on March 21, which was seen as a substantial success with sales totalingUS$10.29 million. This included a new record price for a monumental acrylic on canvas called Tapovan (below) by S.H.Raza, a leading member of the Progressives, at a hammer price of US$3.7 million (US$4.45 million including buyer’s premium).

That was also the highest figure ever paid for a modern or contemporary Indian artist. It beat US$4.38 million including buyer’s premium that was achieved for a Vasudeo S. Gaitonde painting in the Christie’s Mumbai 2015 sale.

Third in line after Asta Guru and Christie’s came Saffronart, India’s better known auction house, which broke from its on-line base with a live Mumbai auction that yielded US$4.32 million. Trailing further behind was Sotheby’s New York auction on March 19, which achieved just US$2.79 million, having been dragged down by a failure to sell two significant works by Raza that could have added US$3 milllion or more.

Tyeb Mehta’s Bull

Another measure of Asta Guru’s success was that 15 of its works sold at or above US$200,000, 13 of them aboveUS$300,000. By contrast, Christie’s had eight at or above US$200,000 while Saffronart had five and Sotheby’s just one.

This showed Asta Guru is mining this potentially lucrative area at a time when auction houses are saying that the best results are being achieved at the top end and at much lower figures well below US$100,000.

With Asta Guru’s website, it is easy to monitor an auction with access to lists of the most popular and the most highly priced works, as well as the general catalogue. As the auction closed on March 27 evening, I tracked bids (in dollars) on various lots. While most-high priced works drew only three or maybe four bidders, some had more though, as happens in live auctions, the ultimate tussle at the end was between just two.

The top hammer price of US$2.80 million was achieved for a 70inx60in oil on canvas titled Bull (above) by Mehta. After two potential buyers dropped out after just one bid each, the battle was joined between paddle numbers 1701 and 1617 who pushed the hammer price with a total of seven bids from US$2.09 million at 8.35pm to 1617’s winning US$2.80 million figure an hour later.

For the second highest priced work, a 55inx40in oil on canvas by Gaitonde there were only three bidders with just two bids on the final evening.

More exciting was the fourth highest but record-breaking priced work, Bawa’s  untitled 66inx78in oil on canvas (above) that attracted 21 bids. It started with eight bidders, but narrowed to two who pushed the hammer price from US$453,903 to US$898,698 in the final half hour, with 1617 (again) winning including buyer’s premium. Bawa, who was born in 1941 and died in 2008, was 15-20 years younger than the leading Progressives and his works, though popular, rarely make such a prominent entry in auctions.

Ganeshji by M.F. Husain

Another keen contest took place for 24inx30in acrylic on canvas painting of the elephant god Ganesh by M.F.Husain, one of the most widely known and prolific Progressives. This fetched 20 bids from three potential buyers with paddle 1617 losing out to 1699 after the hammer price rose from US$90,031 to US$159,495 – four times the average estimated value – in the final 10 minutes.

Asta Guru is not actually new – it is 10 years old, but it has only begun to emerge as a significant player in the last four or five years, growing at an annual rate of 55 percent according to Siddanth Shetty, the head of strategy. The family-owned group was started by Vikram Sethi, its chairman, who set up The Arts Trust in 1990 that later became an on-line art gallery known as the Institute of Contemporary Indian Art and a source of market analysis.

Its reputation in the trade is that it takes care to manage relationships with both sellers and collectors so that it can source the best works and attract buyers. Christie’s and the others of course say they do the same.

Tushar Sethi, the ceo, says that 80 percent of the auction buyers are based in India, with Mumbai being a major center for clients, and that it had a massive 2,500 people registered to bid this week. Some 90 percent of its works are sourced from India, though it hopes to broaden its base later this year with a New York office, its first abroad.

S.H.Raza’s record breaking Tapovan

The strong India focus increases its competitiveness against the international galleries. Christie’s charges a 25 percent buyers’ premium on most works with 20 percent above US$250,000 (and 12.5 percent above US$4 million.

Indian buyers importing works from Christie’s New York or London auctions have to pay the country’s new 12 percent general sales tax on top of 10 percent import duty, making a total of almost 50 percent (without including the cumulative effect of the three levels). Asta Guru charges a 15 percent buyers’ premium plus the GST, but without the import duty because most of its buyers are in India.

Sethi said it threw a large dinner event, its first, in the top end Taj Palace Hotel in Mumbai for this auction, but it does not usually splash out on the sort of lavish entertaining done by other auction houses in Mumbai, Delhi, London and New York, nor does it transport works for pre-auction displays in other cities. Instead, it printed 9,000 copies of its 2cm thick catalogue, couriering them to potential buyers, and it communicates via Facebook where Sethi says it has 120,000 followers.

ArtTactic, a London-based analysis firm, reported in January that there was a swing from international to local auction houses with “moderns” art sales at Christies, Sotheby’s and Bonhams (which is a smaller player) being 22.5 percent lower than in 2016 than in 2017, while India’s Saffronart, AstaGuru and Pundole (also of Mumbai) more than made up for the loss. Asta Guru saw the highest percentage growth, almost doubling its total from 2016 and had become, said ArtTactic, the third largest auction house after Saffronart (which is also into jewelry auctions and property sales) and Christie’s, beating Sotheby’s and Bonhams.

In terms of their overall business, India’s South Asian art market is relatively small for the big galleries such as Christie’s, which started an annual Mumbai auction in 2013 but abandoned it after a flop in 2016. The market is however important for their prestige, and they hope gradually to persuade Indian buyers to become more interested in international art. For the future, Asta Guru’s result shows they will increasing competition from the locals.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s New Delhi correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.