The date was June 10,2010. Art mart in India was still in the red. It was sluggishly picking pace post the turmoil triggered by the slowdown that had resulted from the Lehman Brothers debacle in 2008,when the English summer brought some good news for India. Record was set for the most expensive Indian painting auctioned. By drawing a bid of a whopping $3.5 million at a Christies auction,SH Razas 1983 work titled Saurashtra brought in the colour of money back in the mart. While skeptics argued that it was an aberration,market analysts insisted that the sale managed to bring the much-needed boost to the Indian mart.
Two years later,the chips are still down,but not for the masters. Majority of the experts believe that the Big Four MF Husain,FN Souza,SH Raza and Tyeb Mehta hold more than half of the total market in India. The contemporaries might have been a catalyst in the art boom before the bubble burst,but today,the market as well as the auctions are led by the masters,largely artists born before 1947. They are the pillars of Indian art. Owning a work by them is like owning a slice of Indian history, notes Uday Jain,director of Dhoomimal Gallery.
On June 7,at the Bonhams annual summer sale of Modern and Contemporary South Asian art,a Husain work that once belonged to the Delhi-based gallery will be auctioned at an estimate of $1,10,000 to $1,50,000. Titled The Blue Lady,the canvas sourced from the private collection of UK-based John Hay,is one of the 72 works that will come under the hammer. The other highlights at the auction are also the works of modernists FN Souzas Still Life with Fish and Bread,estimated at $1,60,000 – $2,40,000,and Jehangir Sabavalas Vespers I,estimated $1,60,000 – $2,40,000. Apart from the quality of art,what makes the work of modern artists highly coveted is the fact that their numbers are limited. Some of the artists are not alive. If you want to think of art as an investment,then putting money in the masters assures returns in the long run, says Gayatri Juneja,representative of Bonhams in India.
Reflecting her sentiment is the latest report of ArtTactic,a London-based art market research firm. In its May 2012 Indian Market Confidence Survey,the firm notes that despite the negative art market trend,market experts remain positive about the Indian modern art market with regards to the next six months. The report states,For the modern Indian market,30 per cent of the experts believe the market will go up. The average auction prices that halved between June 2008 and March 2009,bounced back by September 2010,but still lag behind the pre-2008 peak. And this is where the opportunity lies. Good quality pieces will stand the test of time, says Maithili Parekh,director (business development India) at Sothebys. We are operating in a market that is still recovering,the contemporaries are lagging behind,so the price of the masters are also relatively reasonable. If you buy now,you could reap the benefits in a few years, adds Jain.
In March this year,Sothebys failed to get a bidder for Razas much-touted Village With Church,significant for being part of the John D Rockfeller collection,but that has not deterred the confidence in the masters. After all,the Christies auction in the same week had another untitled Raza going for $4,10,500. At the auction where Subodh Gupta just managed crossing the Rs 1 crore mark,Akbar Padamsee created a record for himself with his 1959 oil,Cityscape,fetching $13,14,500. Back home,at the Saffronart auction,Sakti Burmans painting Memory of the Time invited Rs 58.8 lakh.
Meanwhile,the London office of Sothebys is bustling with enthusiasm. Preparations are on for another auction that holds the potential of establishing more landmarks for Indian art. Set to go under the hammer at the auction on June 8 are important works of the masters,with Raza once again in the spotlight. Another work will be the 1971 acrylic La Forge. Estimated between £3,00,000 to £4,00,000,this represents the transitional phase in his career,when after some experimentation Raza began to be influenced by nature and the potency of colours. Another bright summer for Indian art?