‘India’s is a global art market. We want to mine what’s here,’ says Yamini Mehta of Sotheby’s
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‘India’s is a global art market. We want to mine what’s here,’ says Yamini Mehta of Sotheby’s

Ahead of their first physical auction in India, Mehta of the London-based auction house Sotheby’s discusses art, collectors, and Amrita Sher-Gil’s muse.

art and culture Updated: Nov 25, 2018 09:34 IST
Dhamini Ratnam
Dhamini Ratnam
Hindustan Times
India,Art,Art market
‘We want people to move beyond traditional ideas of what Indian art should be,’ says Mehta, Sotheby’s international head for the department of Indian, Himalayan and south-east Asian art. (Raj K Raj / HT Photo)

International auction house Sotheby’s will hold its first India auction on November 29 in Mumbai. On offer in Boundless: India are 60 lots and the auction house’s catholic approach to what they hope is highly saleable Indian art — Sotheby’s hopes to make between $6 million and $8.7 million (Rs 43.1 crore to Rs 62.9 crore).

Photographs by Nandini Valli Muthiah that reference Ramayan, the Doordarshan show, and National Geographic’s Steve McCurry will face the gavel alongside rare paintings like Tyeb Mehta’s 1993 Durga Mahisasura Mardini, the sale’s headliner, and Amrita Sher-Gil’s 1934 The Girl in Blue, both of which have entered the auction circuit for the first time. The sale will also include furniture pieces designed by Pierre Jeanneret and 2018 Pritzker prize winner BV Doshi.

Yet Sotheby’s entry into India — the auction house conducts physical auctions in nine other cities globally, including London, New York and Hong Kong — is significant for another reason. Rival company Christie’s, which began to hold auctions in India in 2013, has exited the country, deciding to focus on Indian art through its online auctions. Further, the Indian art market is still in recovery mode. It started with the global financial crisis and the subsequent price correction that contemporary Indian art underwent starting in 2008. Then came demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax (GST), which according to a FICCI-KPMG report, led to a 6% decline in 2017 from the previous year.

Days before the auction, Sotheby’s India MD Gaurav Bhatia agreed to take a leave of absence pending a formal inquiry into #metoo allegations. The auction, as a result, will now be supervised by Edward Gibbs, chairman for the Middle East & India.

Yamini Mehta, international head for the department of Indian, Himalayan and south-east Asian art, declined comment on the #metoo issue, but talks about Sotheby’s decision to enter India, some of the pieces in the fray, and the possible ways forward.

The Girl in Blue is Babeet Singh Majithia, a cousin of Amrita Sher-Gil. ‘Babeet is now 94, and she was delighted when we announced this work,’ Mehta says.

The auction offers a big line-up, in terms of names like Amrita Sher-Gil, works like Durga Mahishasura Mardini, and provenance. What are your hopes for it?

We wanted to create something that was very India specific in terms of its scope. We want people to move beyond traditional ideas of what Indian art should be. This is why we have, for the first time, included two drawings by RK Laxman (‘Man lying in the Verandah’ and ‘The Parsi Girl’). There is beauty all throughout what we see here in India, including in popular culture. There is art in everyday things, like Pierre Jeanneret furniture. We’ve also included Nargis Wadia’s designs on Air India posters, which bring back a nostalgic sense of what this new and developing country was like in the ’60s and ’70s.

The story behind [The Girl in Blue] is also quite sweet. This little girl is Babeet Singh Majithia, a cousin of Amrita Sher-Gil. She’s the younger sister of the three women in her other famous painting ‘Three Girls’, which hangs at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi. Babeet is 94 years old. She was so delighted when we announced this work. Apparently, Babeet’s mother was not fond of the painting. So the family did not buy this painting, and Sher-Gil assured her that she would paint over it. However, she took it to her first solo show in Lahore [in 1937] and it was bought by Charles Fabri, the famous Indologist and art critic. It’s been in the Fabri family all this time.

Christie’s has exited India. Then demonetisation hit the art market. Why enter India now?

There is a lot of potential in India. Aside from some of the photographs in this auction, almost everything has been sourced in India. And it makes sense for us to work in the Indian environment and mine what is physically here.

It’s not just an Indian art market, it’s global — the Indian diaspora participates quite heavily in these auctions. Every auction that we have, the values might be coming from the UK one year, the US the next, or from India. So it’s not just focused on one area, one economy, one entity. It’s a three-legged stool. If you’re an investor, that’s one thing. But if you’re really looking to invest in a work of art, and ensure that it holds its value and builds up over time, it’s a very stable market to be part of.

Your last auction of contemporary and modern South Asian art, in London in October, didn’t sell its headliner, SH Raza’s La Terre. The highest selling works were by contemporary artists.

There is now a realism about where the pricing needs to be. A lot of the contemporary art that was bought between 2005 and 2008, was purchased by people internationally. Some of them were speculators, some were real collectors. But a well-known Western contemporary art collector actually said to me, ‘Why should I be supporting the Indian art market if people in India don’t support the contemporary Indian art market? In London this time, I agree we did not sell the Raza, but that also had some other inherent challenges, between the owners and other parties. But we sold to a lot of new and young collectors. We sold a small Dhruv Mistry sculpture to one of the top Impressionist collectors in the world. So, maybe the entry points into the Indian market for some collectors are at a lower price level. We also need to expand beyond the five-seven big names. In the Indian market, the danger is too much of a focus on those big pieces and those big names — that’s unhealthy.

What would you like to see happen in the art market?

What we need to see happen in India is some kind of joining up of museums, galleries, and the auction houses. Everyone is still working in very disparate spaces. I go to contemporary art galleries that are working with leading and cutting edge artists, but I don’t see those works in some of the top Delhi and Bombay homes, necessarily. I also don’t necessarily see what’s in the auction catalogues in some of these environments either. So it seems like the auction house has its own sphere, the galleries are trying to build a contemporary market, and the collectors also need to respond to their own aesthetics. It needs to co-mingle a bit more.

First Published: Nov 24, 2018 17:35 IST