By: John Elliott

Sotheby’s earlier this week dispelled some of the gloom and uncertainty emanating from a poor Christie’s US$3.8 million auction of South Asian art in New York last month when its annual London auction yielded sales totaling £4.02 milliion – US$4.90 million at the depleted pound’s current post-Brexit level.

The top lot was a memorable depiction of Christ’s burial by Francis Newton Souza titled The Deposition that sold for a hammer price of £1.30 million – £1.57 million including buyer’s premium. The hammer price was just over two to three times a surprisingly low estimate of £400,000-£600,000.

The tragic but colorful painting – of Christ’s body being moved by his followers – was last sold in 1998 for £12,000 by London’s Grosvenor Gallery. In a demonstration of the surge in top prices since then, its value has risen 80 times in the intervening 18 years (after adjusting for inflation). 

Souza was one of India’s leading 20th century artists and he died in 2002. Many of his works show the tortured legacy of a strict Roman Catholic upbringing under Portuguese colonial rule in the Indian state of Goa, before he left to live in London and New York.

The successful sale of this and other paintings in the Sotheby’s and other recent auctions underlines one of the key points about the current uncertain state of the South Asian modern art market, which is being swamped by a surfeit of auctions: works generally do best if they have a strong provenance and are new to the market. 

Even The Deposition might have stuck at around £700,000, when early bidders dropped out, if two potential buyers represented in the auction room by Yamini Mehta, Sotheby’s department head, and Conor Macklin of the Grosvenor Gallery, had not fought it out. They raised the price by some £600,000 and Mehta won – for what Sotheby’s describe as a “European Trade buyer” and not for Kiran Nadar, India’s most prolific collector, who had seemed a likely candidate.

elliott-art-01
The next highest sale was achieved for a brightly colored untitled 60in x 39in oil on canvas by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde that went to a private Indian buyer.

Estimated at more than twice the Souza price, it sold for far less – an £800,000 hammer price that was under the £900,000 low estimate. The total figure of £965,000 including buyer’s premium was however more than twice the $507,000 it sold for in September 2013 at Christie’s in New York, so it bucked the trend.