Mysterious art auctions: Going, going...where?

Who decides the worth of a painting, really? The author plays detective in an attempt to demystify art auctions 

V S Gaitonde

In the 1970s, this was a very popular song by the Swedish group Abba — Money, money, money, must be funny, in the rich man’s world.

Now, in 2018, we could tweak the song a bit — Money, money, money, must be funny, in the world of art.

If not, how can one explain the kind of money involved in art auctions? Every auction announces more number of zeros added to the price of art. In March this year, a painting by Raja Ravi Varma, of a celestial nymph from Hindu mythology, who embodies the ‘nearly perfect being’, was auctioned by the House of Sotheby’s for a whopping $795,000. I don’t know how many zeros to add if we convert this amount into rupees.

In the latest auction by Saffronarts’s milestone 200th auction on June 14, renowned artist Tyeb Mehta’s ‘Kali’ fetched Rs 26.4 crore. And, comparatively, young artist Subhod Gupta’s sculpture ‘Hungry God’, made of his trademark steel utensils, went under the hammer for Rs 1.46 crore.

At another auction held by the House of AstaGuru, in April, an untitled painting by artist V S Gaitonde went under the hammer for Rs 11 crore, an untitled work by Manjit Bawa went for Rs 7.7 crore, M F Husain’s large acrylic work on cloth fetched Rs 3 crore, a Bikash Bhattacharya’s work for Rs 1.2 crore, so on and so forth.

In 2014, the House of Christie’s had held an auction in Mumbai, where Tyeb Mehta’s ‘Falling Bull’ had fetched Rs 17,54,25,000; S H Raza’s ‘Les Toits de la rue St Jacque...’ was taken up for Rs 4,58,25,000, F N Souza’s ‘Front-back nude’ was grabbed for Rs 1,58,25000, Jamini Roy’s ‘Yashoda and Krishna’ was sold for Rs 27,50,000 and several more, all fetching this kind of money.

And the best part of these auctions is that, in every auction is a mindboggling appreciation of every piece of work. For example, the untitled work of V S Gaitonde’s oil on canvas in green colour, created in 1998, which was sold four years ago at Christie’s for Rs six-plus crore, fetched Rs 11 crore this year at AstaGuru auction! In a matter of four years, the value had nearly doubled.

Tushar Sethi, CEO of AstaGuru and director of ICIA, the art gallery in Mumbai, says, “In this latest auction, we got Rs 1.27 crore for a Bikash Bhattacharjee’s work from his ‘Doll’ series of 1972-74. That is a world record for his work!”

Continuing his conversation about auctions, the young Sethi says, “The Indian art market is booming and has an immense potential to scale. Also remember, auctions don’t promote artists. We don’t interact with the artists at all. Our interactions are with the art galleries and museums!”

Auctions are business, and artworks are investments. The rarer a work of art, the better price it might fetch. For example, one of the last works by the late artist Gaitonde was put up for sale just six weeks after the opening of a retrospective of his work at Guggenheim Museum in New York. It fetched Rs 6,62,25,000. It was painted in 1998, and he passed away in 2001. The saddest part is that he died in obscurity and not so well off. As Sethi says, auctions are for investors, and not artists.

Buyers’ land, indeed

And the good news is that India seems to have become a fertile ground for auctions, buyers and investors. Previously, Saffron Arts and Pundole’s were the only major auction houses. Now we have AstaGuru, and the international auction house Sotheby’s is starting its India chapter by December this year. Till last year, House of Christie’s too was operating in India, but not anymore. However, there are several other small-timers in the arena.

In fact, there seems to be a sudden spurt or rejuvenation in the world of Indian art and Indian buyers. The financial crisis of 2008 hit the art world badly. But, on the positive side, it also became the best time to buy and hoard artworks and wait for the opportune time to bring them back into the sales market. With the financial markets bouncing back in 2017, things have started moving in both international and domestic worlds of art, and especially so in India.

Adding to this is the approach of Indian artists to their creations. They are contemporarising their works, which is helping in increasing their presence in the international arena. We often see the works of modern artists like Satish Gujaral, Anjolie Ela Menon, Subodh Gupta, Samir Mondal, N Krishna and many more displayed at international art exhibitions, biennale, galleries and museums. This increases the value of their work, and also the footprints of Indian artists.

For an art collector, buying an art is just a part of his investments. There are very few art collectors who love the world of art, are very knowledgeable about it, and don’t mind spending their savings on it. But for most others, it’s a good investment opportunity.

The point of profit in investment in paintings can be easily understood by the latest auction, on May 16, by the House of Sotheby’s, held in Chicago. It was a lone painting by artist Kerry James Marshall titled ‘Past Times’. This work was bought for $25,000 in 1997, which, at that time, was a record for the artist. Last month, the same painting fetched $21.1 million, a cool 900 times appreciation!

In fact, when I had met the famous artist Jehangir Sabavala at his residence in Mumbai, just a year before his death in 2011, he had incredulously said, “I don’t know how my works are getting sold for such a huge amount — more than a crore. When I started painting way back in the 1950s, I could have never dreamed about this amount!” In 2010, one of his landscapes titled ‘Casuarina Line’ had fetched Rs 1.7 crore at an auction by Saffron Art, another of his work titled ‘Vespers 1’ was sold for Rs 2.1 crore at Bonhams’ sale in London.

Another famous artist, S H Raza, after his return from France to settle down in India, had said, “In our initial years, we have all struggled a lot. If our work is being appreciated now and getting us the money, then, so be it. But every seller at the auction should make it a point to pay the artist or his family a share of the auction money.”

According to Gautum Patole, a charcoal artist and co-owner of ArtDesh Gallery in Mumbai, sometimes a collector does pay the artist a small percentage of the sale money. “But that is only if he or she is an art lover. If he is a pure investor, and is completely art-illiterate, then the artist doesn’t get any share at all. The investor may not even know who the artist is! The best example is that of artist Gaitonde. His works fetched well at auctions, but he died in penury.”

A very valid question asked is, if the reason for buying a work of art is to add to one’s art collections, then how and why do they come back into the market after some time?

Mumbai-based Gaurav Bhatia, managing director of Sotheby’s India, explains, “Each collector is different and has different reasons for selling. Many collectors cherish works within their collections, and to continue expanding, often need to make room for newly coveted pieces. Often, objects are passed through generations of family members who are either no longer able to accommodate the works or aren’t fond of the art or the particular artist. So, the painting or sculpture comes back into circulation.”

And, as the money involved is in lakhs and crores, the investor remains anonymous. Very rarely is the identity of a buyer revealed. Even at the actual auction, somebody represents the buyer. Many a time the bidding is done via telephone. And, nowadays, there is a rising shift from physical to online auctions, which make Indian art globally accessible, which in turn helps to increase the value of Indian art.

Another pertinent question asked is, in today’s world of fakes and duplicates, how do auction houses ensure that the work of art they are putting up for auction is authentic? Tushar Sethi says, “We, like all other reputed auction houses, have a very good research team. They not only know from where to source the paintings, but also to identify the fakes. Besides, we approach only those collectors who we know have the original. Also, we have experts from different school of arts to authenticate the works that we auction. Sometimes, technologies like ultra-violet scans are also used to confirm authenticity.”

Seconding his statement, Gaurav Bhatia explains, “We are vigilant in examining the provenance of each and every work which passes through our doors, whether this is by referring to artists’ catalogues raisonnés, getting in touch with the artist foundations, galleries and museums, or through the scholarly consensus of our expert specialists.”

Most auctions are built around a theme or concept, and property is consigned accordingly. Sometimes, there is an entirely new auction category that is introduced, which requires a great deal of market research and on-ground knowledge of demand and supply, which is then followed by getting consignments in, cataloguing, programming and event planning. Typically, it takes several months of planning before a new sale is announced. Procuring one unique work distinguishes an auction.

Recalling an auction in 2017, Bhatia said Sotheby’s were lucky to get Bhupen Khakhar’s ‘De-Luxe Tailors’, which sold at a record price of Rs 9.5 crore in London. It was the last of the Tradesman series by Khakhar that came from extraordinary provenance, which was a part of painter Howard Hodgkin’s personal collection. Hodgkin had been a mentor to Khakhar and had hosted the artist many times in the late 1970s at his home in Wiltshire.

Known & unknown

Even Sethi was elated when they got to auction a painting from Bikash Bhattacharjee’s ‘Doll’ series. “The artist died very young and most of his works are with private collectors or galleries. To auction one of his works was very rare,” says Sethi.

Only one grouse is that at every auction, we get to hear only the sale of renowned artists. Does this mean unknown artists can’t enter the arena at all?

“We offer works at different price points. The first couple of rounds are for unknown, non-established artists who, though highly creative and talented, are still to make a name. This segment also offers good work of art for buyers who can’t afford big names. Sometimes, these buys strike gold when, after a couple of years, the artist becomes famous,” clarifies Sethi.

Elaborating on non-established artists in their auctions, Bhatia says, “In our most recent Modern & South Asian Art sale, we saw strong prices achieved for works by artists whose works rarely appear on the international market, such as Gopal Ghose, Benode Behari Mukherjee and Kenro Izu.”

But who decides the worth of a painting? How did a Gaitonde’s untitled green canvas measuring 55” by 36” get Rs 11 crore, whereas, at the same auction, M F Husain’s untitled 93” by 237” depicting the gist of the epic Mahabharat with one scene could fetch only Rs 3 crore? Or, the latest Tyeb Mehta’s ‘Kali’ get Rs 26.4 crore?

Chuckling softly, Gautam Patole says, “That’s the mystery of auctions. You can’t solve it!”

  • Auctions
  • paintings