February 21, 2018 12:10:41 am
After a 14-year career at Christie’s, where she helped establish the Indian art department in New York in 1998, Yamini Mehta joined Sotheby’s in 2012, where she is the International Head of Indian and South Asian Art. In Delhi recently for the India Art Fair, she spoke about the upcoming Sotheby’s Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art Sale that will take place in New York on March 19. The highlights include SH Raza’s Ville Provençale that was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1956, as well as iconic works by MF Husain, FN Souza and Ganesh Pyne. Also featured in the sale are two important Bikash Bhattacharjee works from the collection of one of his earliest patrons, Helen and Herb Gordon, the American Consul General to Calcutta in the late ’60s. Excerpts from an interview:
Could you talk about the significance of Raza’s Ville Provençale which will be put up for sale in New York.
This is one of the largest early works by Raza to appear in the market. It is most unusual and seminal. Distinguished by its vivid colours, it displays a semi-abstracted view of a town in rural Provence. Raza represented India at the Venice Biennale in 1956, where Ville Provençale was displayed, with the works of MF Husain, Dinkar Kaushik and Akbar Padamsee. This was also a significant period in Indian art history. The Progressives (Progressive Artists Group) had organised their very first exhibition in 1948. Right after, SH Raza and FN Souza moved to France. Followed by Akbar Padamsee. They were going to museums, churches and were exposed to impressionism, expressionism. One of the first shows the three held in France was called ‘Trios Hindoos’, and ironically none of them were Hindu. We don’t have an estimate, but the Raza should go for at least 2.5 million dollars.
In October 2017, you also sold Bhupen Khakhar’s De-Luxe Tailors from his ‘Tradesmen’ series for Rs 9.5 crore. Do you think he is one of the more underrated artists in India?
He is half a generation younger than Raza. He has always been a celebrated artist among other artists; he was an artists’ artist. Even the work we sold belonged to the collection of Howard Hodgkin. Bhupen was one of the founders of the narrative school of painting. There is a reckoning for his work now. In the upcoming auction, we also have an exceptional painting of Apsara Tilottama by Raja Ravi Varma. This was among the works that his printing technician from Germany, Schleizer, had taken with him when he was returning from India. Ravi Varma had sold his press to Schleizer in 1906. In 1996, this work was sold at an auction for 10,000 pounds. Now we are estimating it at 600 to 800 thousand dollars.
In 2009, after the recession, we saw a dip in the prices of the contemporaries but the Modernists have strengthened again.
The Indian art market did probably bottom out a bit in 2009 but what you end up seeing is a filtration process. The works of the modernists and established artists came back much more quickly. There are many more people who are collecting art now than 10 years ago. If you have a masterpiece, it is easier to sell than an average work by the same artist even though the price might be less. What we are also seeing is a widening gap in the market — where the top end is doing well. Wider group of collectors also means more stability. People are not just buying a name, but also educating themselves about the artists. In India, a lot of works are still too inexpensive when you compare to the other markets. Newer groups of artists are being auctioned and getting high prices.
Sotheby’s also set up a office in Mumbai in 2015. Does that indicate a more active role in the country?
Our Mumbai team is building a presence in India and also building new collectors. These are people who are taking part in international auctions as well.
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