The gavel comes down on auctioneers


Kishore Singh / New Delhi March 04, 2008




ART: While one new auction house may have claimed a record, two others - also new - are finding the going very tough.


It’s almost a week since Triveda’s auction of Indian art (“early to contemporary”) but it is still to update its website with the results. Like its second sale, you can be sure the results aren’t going to be posted anytime soon.


The auction, held in New Delhi for the third time running, was a disaster with promoter Nina Pillai able to sell only 27 of its 118 lots for a total of Rs 1.3 crore, and scant interest in the works of the masters.


In Bangalore, well over a month after Bid & Hammer’s heroic attempt to breach the market, it has stoically posted the results on its site, but it might as well have not. Though it claims to have sold 46 per cent of its lots, many of these are in the category of collectibles and accessories, with art accounting for only Rs 2.78 crore of the proceeds.


Promoter Maher S Dadha, peddler in collectibles and accessories and print-related artifacts, has learned his first lesson: art collectors aren’t likely to be fooled by just any collection “consigned” to a sale. That is a job for art galleries.


A good reason for their cynicism is because serious collectors have found nothing of merit in either auction. That’s one. The other is that art funds are laughing and staying away from them.


“We get better rates from galleries,” says one, not wanting to be named. But would they sell through them? “Through auctions, yes,” he says, “but not these untried, untested auctioneers. The merit of an auction house is paramount for us.”


In another part of the country, in Kolkata, though, ECA (that’s Emami Chisel Art) has had an easier time of it at its maiden auction in the latter part of February. Again, there are two reasons for this: one, the promoter, Vikram Bachhawat, has been associated with art for a long time, and, two, there’s the advantage that there is no VAT surcharge in the city, which amounts to purchasing art at a discount.


Therefore, its debut auction set a record too in the bargain, with the highest price ever (and a new benchmark) for a painting by MF Husain (“Safdar Hashmi”) at $1 million.


Tyeb Mehta’s “Kali III” commanded a little more at Rs 4.4 crore, and JN Swaminathan half that at Rs 2 crore. A total sale of Rs 24 crore from the 79 lots (of a total of 89) brought down the hammer on a successful auction — though collectors were unsure whether the auctioned painting by Husain should have commanded the premium when other works by the artist have gone for less.


Nor are existing auctioneers worried — both Osian’s and Saffronart have hardly felt the pinch, though there was concern for a while in the trade about sales and prices growing sluggish.


But there is scepticism about the new entrants, and while ECA may have opened its innings on a strong wicket, Triveda and Bid & Hammer, which are both inviting works for forthcoming auctions, have their work cut out for them if they are even to survive.


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