On September 17, at an evening sale by auction house Saffronart, a painting by VS Gaitonde (1924–2001) sold for Rs 35.5 crore. The painting, an untitled green work from 1974, is now the second-highest selling Indian artwork. The first, also by Gaitonde, sold for Rs 36.8 crore earlier this month at an auction by Pundole’s. With successive sales landing records for the artist, it’s important to note that among the ten most expensive Indian artworks, seven are by Gaitonde.
What makes Gaitonde’s works coveted collector’s items?
The artist’s mastery over colour and technique coupled with a high market demand make a Gaitonde a special buy for many collectors. Unlike some of his peers, Gaitonde was less prolific, taking months to arrive at his canvases and producing a handful each year. This means only a finite number of works are available for circulation in the art market even today.
What is so remarkable about Gaitonde’s technique?
Gaitonde graduated from Sir JJ School of Art in 1948 and became associated with the iconoclastic Progressive Artists’ Group. He chose the abstract form of art, which he preferred to call “non–objective”, and was talented in making pigment behave like light. His works therefore have an inherent luminosity, remarkable for their translucence and texture.
Having said this, Gaitonde’s artistic career saw different phases. From the 1960s, he was deeply influenced by Zen Buddhism, both in life and art. Enigmatic patterns and calligraphic forms appeared in his paintings around this time. By the end of that decade, Gaitonde had moved completely to vertical canvases, with complex textures achieved using just rollers and brushes. The two most expensive Indian artworks are from the 1970s, when Gaitonde’s works had achieved the meditative qualities they are renowned for.
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Did his paintings fetch these amounts when he was alive?
During his lifetime, it’s doubtful if Gaitonde sold a work even for a crore. This does not mean, however, that his artistic genius had been overlooked. Gaitonde was one of the most sought-after Indian artists, with works that made their way into important collections, both Indian and international. The top selling work came from the Glenbarra Art Museum in Japan. The second highest was from the private collection of Mumbai–based actor and aesthete Sabira Merchant.
How do these prices compare to the international art market?
Experts believe that the Indian art market, which is still in its infancy, is at the start of its appreciation for a Gaitonde. With the current prices the works fetch, it is easy to predict that the demand will only increase in the coming years.
It is still a long way off from the kind of prices that other Asian markets are able to achieve, however. For instance, in 2017, Chinese artist Qi Baishi joined the $100 million club when a set of his ink brush panels sold for $140.8 million.
Is it bad news for the Indian art market to see one artist dominate the top ten works?
While individual works command high prices, the collective sales figure for Gaitonde is lower than Husain’s, according to art market intelligence firm, Artery India. In a “power list” of the last five years drawn up by Artery India, Raja Ravi Varma comes first, with just 15 works that have sold for a total of Rs 88 crore. In comparison, Gaitonde ranks second, having achieved a net sales figure of Rs 395.9 crore but with a sizeable 89 works. Experts believe that while the interest in Gaitonde will never fade away, we may see new, even if predictable, names shuffle for the top ten in the coming years.
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