The passports of paintings

aditi sriram | Updated on January 22, 2018

Leagues of its own: FN Souza’s oil painting ‘Birth’ was the toast of the auction. Image: Christie’s images ltd. 2015

A report from the frontlines of the record-breaking auction of South Asian art at Christie’s

1947 is a significant year for India in more ways than one. Art created prior to that year is labelled ‘modern,’ and work produced after is ‘contemporary,’ explains Nishad Avari, associate specialist in South Asian Art at Christie’s. He is standing in the centre of Gallery VI, which houses over $5 million worth of art by FN Souza, SH Raza, MF Husain, Akbar Padamsee, VS Gaitonde and Ram Kumar, to name a few. They are some of the artists featured in the 73 lots, or pieces, up for auction. I attend the opening reception, so the atmosphere is relaxed and inviting, even if the air conditioning is unnecessarily strong. People walk in to either admire or to decide what to buy. Avari smiles a greeting at the former while escorting the latter through the exhibition and answering their questions.

What do they ask about?

The provenance, mostly.


“Assume each painting has a passport,” Avari says, who spends months going through old catalogues and exhibition histories to piece one together. The provenance of a work is its back story: where it was created, who owned it before it ended up at Christie’s. It indicates a work’s age, reputation, and lineage.

The ‘South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art’ collection in Gallery VI boasts an adventurous and patriotic provenance. Most of the work was created in the 1950s and ’60s, “a fertile period” for Indian artists, according to Avari. Many belonged to the Progressive Artists’ Group of Bombay (formed by Souza), and left India around independence to spend years in Europe and the US, which influenced their understanding of art. Several then returned to India — a new country, and a new artistic quest — armed with western techniques, colours and mindsets, which they diligently applied to their subject material. Gradually, they adapted their craft to suit Indian landscapes, and found ways to harmonise the abstract shapes of the West with the indigenous grace of the East.

The exhibition begins in a narrow hallway, where several pencil sketches by Pakistani artist Abdur Rahman Chughtai hang. Tucked in an alcove on the left is an untitled Gaitonde watercolour, warm in its trademark yellows and reds. The hallway then opens into a wide gallery, at the other end of which is a striking sight: a long Souza oil painting, ‘Birth’. The nude woman stretched out in ‘Birth’ and ready to deliver is one of Souza’s most iconic images. Avari pauses in front of this painting to explain its “flawless provenance” — it is one of the “five best works of modern South Asian art,” and holds a world auction record for Souza. The piece is acclaimed for its “sheer monumentality and life sized figures.” It was last sold in 2008 for $2.5 million to Tina Ambani at the same time that Raza’s famous ‘Saurashtra’ sold for $2.5 million. This was the year when global financial markets were crashing. Only the auctioneers — and the portraits they were selling — did not blink.

This auction proves that the optimism in the market continues as several records were broken. The first lot that sold — “that little Gaitonde” — went for almost $200,000, or five times the original price. That kicked off the auction “with a bang,” and the rest of it was no less energised.

‘Birth’ sold for $4.1 million to a buyer in India, and became the most expensive South Asian modern painting ever sold. Bids came in person, online, and on the nearly 20 active phone lines in the room. Private buyer and art enthusiast Monica Saxena’s Upper East Side living room is covered in ornate, vibrant pieces, but she takes care to hang the Chughtai sketch she acquired in her bedroom, where it makes a more intimate statement.

Over 75 per cent of the works were acquired — a statistical success for Avari — because “people are looking for early modernism,” he says, explaining the auction’s success. “There’s also a lot more confidence in the modernist market, so people are not afraid to bid, even though the dollar is so high.” But the year is not yet over; the marquis auction will take place in Mumbai this December. “There are a lot of people out there who didn’t get what they wanted,” Avari says, which bodes well for upcoming sales.

Gallery VI has gone quiet but Avari and his team are already preparing for Mumbai. “We are travelling all over, meeting people, chasing things, getting leads,” Avari says. “It’s a little treasure hunt-like.”

Aditi Sriram is a New York-based freelance writer

Published on October 16, 2015

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