In 2006, when SH Raza’s Tapovan was auctioned for $1.4 million, it created a record for the artist. Now, more than a decade later, the 1972 work will once again come under the hammer at the Christie’s New York sale on March 21. Deepanjana Klein, International Head, Department for South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art at Christie’s, feels it is among the most seminal works of the artist. A PhD in Indian Art History from De Montfort University in England, the art expert talks about the upcoming auction, art market in India, and Christie’s operations here.
If you could talk about the upcoming New York sale. What are the highlights?
The lots include Tyeb Mehta’s Two Figures and an untitled Gaitonde from 1980, but I think the work that will probably make headlines is Tapovan. It is a phenomenally large work by Raza, which is hard to come by. We have been talking about bringing it to the market for some years now. The ’70s was key period in Raza’s career. We sold Saurashtra from the ’80s for $3.5 million, and this should definitely go for more than 3 million, if not higher.
Another auction house is bringing a seminal work by Raza for auction (Sotheby’s will auction his 1956 work, Ville Provencale, on March 19). Is there more interest in his work after his death?
Ram Kumar, Krishen Khanna and Akbar Padamsee are still with us but we have lost most of our modernists. The death of an artist does not necessarily impact the market, even though the perception is such. It is always a function of the quality of work. Some works, no matter when they come out, will do well. Tapovan is one such painting that will create history. The estimate that we set for a work also depends on the comfort level of the collector/consignor.
After the 2008 crash, you had made an attempt to revive interest in contemporary art. If you could talk a bit about that effort?
The 2008 crash was probably the worse beating. Unlike the modernists, the contemporary market had spiked very quickly, and it wasn’t an organic growth. Any market will go through that when there are speculators, and when the market crashes the speculators are also the first to leave. At the time, we saw a huge drop in the prices of the contemporaries. But regardless of the prices, these are important artists who are incredibly talented. Look at Jitish Kallat, Anju and Atul Dodiya, Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher — these are our future modernists. A concentrated effort is required from galleries, collectors, dealers, artists to bring that market back. Everyone is doing their bit. The process has been slow but artists have continued to do great work.
Do you feel the modernists are still a safe bet? Even at the time of recession, their prices were least affected.
The modernists have always remained strong and stable. Over time, every seasoned collector understands that there is finite amount of their work available. No matter where the overall economy is, if you bring out a really important work there will be collectors. No one thought Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi would go for $450 million, but it was the only work by him out for the public and a once in a lifetime opportunity. In terms of contemporary artists, the market is at a cusp. Museums across the world are showing interest in the category — the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently showed works by Raghubir Singh, which came from the photo department and not the Indian art section. Ranjani Shettar is opening her show at the MET in March, Mrinalini Mukherjee will show there next year, Huma Bhabha is showing at the terrace. Tate Modern has a huge room with Sheela Gowda’s works. The works of these artists are being placed alongside artists from all over the world, they are at par.
After four years of live auctions in India, last year Christie’s announced it will discontinue the sale. Does that indicate reducing operations in India?
As a company, we have continued to remain interested in India. We had an office in India for over 15 years. Sonal (Singh, director, Christie’s India) is doing various events not just in Delhi and Mumbai but also Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune and Ahmedabad. We recently organised an architecture tour in Chandigarh for our collectors, and also invited some of them for the India Art Fair. We are doing more previews in India. We are planning to offer courses and get specialists to do lectures. We would like to sell and expand, and also be engaged with art education in India.