A special auction

Different Strokes

A painting by Gaitonde at Saffronart

Eighteen years after his death, Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde (1924-2001), one of India’s modern masters, must have turned in his grave. On March 26, 2019, one of his enigmatic untitled abstracts painted in 1973 was auctioned for a whopping Rs 25.24 crore (including buyer’s premium). 

Another painting that created flutter on that Tuesday evening in Mumbai was that of Raja Ravi Varma (1848-1906). The 1881-work showed ‘The Maharaja of Travancore and his younger brother welcoming Richard Temple-Grenville, 3rd Duke of Buckingham and Chandos, Governor-General of Madras (1875-80), on his official visit to Trivandram in 1880’. The piece came with an estimate of Rs 12-18 crore.

By the time Saffronart’s auctioneer Dinesh Vazirani brought down the hammer, a phone bidder had decided to shell out Rs 16.10 crore (including the buyer’s premium) for the work. Among other surprises was a tiny 10.75 x 10.75-inch mixed-media work on paper by Jogen Chowdhury, estimated to fetch Rs 12-18 lakh, but actually went for Rs 52.90 lakh!   

These paintings were among the 68 works from Nirav Modi’s collection seized by the Enforcement Directorate and put on auction by the Income Tax Department to recover its dues amounting to Rs 95.92 crore from the erstwhile showman of Indian jewellery business. Now a declared economic offender, Modi wielded enormous clout in political and social circles not long ago. The tide, however, has turned and the law enforcement agencies are chasing him over the country’s largest bank fraud. When the auction took place in Mumbai, the fugitive diamantaire who fled India in January 2018 was, in fact, cooling his heels in London’s Wandsworth prison awaiting extradition proceedings.

All in all, 55 paintings were sold during the Saffronart event, raising a sum of Rs 59.37 crore. The auction followed a special court order that permitted sale of not only 173 paintings but also 11 luxury vehicles owned by Modi. But just a day after the auction, the matter was back in court with Modi’s firm, Camelot Enterprises, challenging the sale of paintings in Bombay High Court. The Court in turn directed the IT department to file a reply to the petition. As for Modi, the former jeweller is reportedly making all-out efforts to escape extradition to India to face trials. The last word of this intriguing tale has not yet been said or written.   

Turn of events

The Saffronart auction was quite unique. This was reportedly the first time that artworks were put on sale by Indian statutory authorities to recover dues. Certain apprehensions were also expressed in some quarters, whether the exercise would succeed. “Worries that collectors might not bid because the works were tainted by being owned by a fraudster proved wrong,” explains John Elliott, English journalist and a keen India-watcher. “Some critics originally suggested that the collection included several fakes (a growing problem in auctions), and that Modi had poor taste. Neither turned out to be true.”

The auction also brought back the question about the relationship of gangsters and fraudsters with art. How and why are they attracted to art, and how exactly do they collect artworks? 

“Just the same way any other art collector would,” says an observer of Indian art. “The main thing is to show off! People with money, even it is from dubious sources, want to be seen with artists, actors, sportsmen and politicians in order to flaunt their wealth and power. There are exceptions to this, but generally speaking, for the rich and (in)famous, artworks are precious and undeniable status symbols.”

How do these people get acquainted with art trends?

“Men with deep pockets may not have first-hand knowledge or information, but have dependable friends and advisers. There is also a galaxy of gallerists, curators, promoters waiting to churn the butter, as it were. That could be one of the reasons why some artists’ names suddenly pop up in the market.  For instance, people went gaga with an artist like Tyeb Mehta (1925 -2009). Prices of his paintings skyrocketed. People owning a Tyeb had their noses in the sky, even if the artist himself remained unaffected and got no benefit from it whatsoever. Now, Gaitonde seems to be the flavour of the season.  Everyone wants a Gaitonde in their collection. The artist himself reportedly shunned public glare, lived a reclusive life, and died almost penniless, but is now on every collector’s hit list!”

In a rare case, the businessman (who may later turn out to be a fraudster) himself could have a genuine personal interest in art. “In a rich man’s house, you will inevitably see some artworks on the walls and pedestals. They may not have a particularly good taste but are dedicated to their collection and have a set of favourite artists.”  

Lending against art 

The Income Tax auction also brings up another interesting discussion. How do wealthy people fund acquisitions of art? Do banks and institutions view artworks as financial assets? Would they lend money against artworks? Or consider paintings and sculptures as security for their loans?

“When I see a painting, even of masters like Ravi Varma, Gaitonde or M F Husain, I may like or dislike it, but I certainly don’t have any tools to assess its intrinsic or market value,” confesses a bank officer. 

“If you tell me that a Jogen Chowdhury’s tiny painting sold for Rs 50 lakh in the recent Saffronart auction, can you guarantee that every single work of his would fetch such astronomical prices in future? I am rather comfortable to deal with gold or stocks where I can calculate the value immediately.” Bankers like him are also baffled how some relatively unknown artists become celebrated in the art world. The issue is further complicated by the many fakes in the art market, which even experts find difficult to identify.

Notwithstanding such problems, one wonders if the auction of Modi’s paintings has opened a small window to bankers to look at art collections more favourably, and as possible assets to recover dues from their defaulting customers.

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A special auction

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