Souza`s Birth sells for record Rs 10.6 cr

Kishore Singh / New Delhi June 13, 2008, 0:21 IST


It's a somewhat ironic truism that every time the markets act shaky, the price of art begins to zip-zap-zoom. So when the Sensex in India began to crumble, punters could have pointed out with reasonable surety that the Christie's auction of South Asian modern and contemporary art in London on Wednesday afternoon would deliver some surprising results.


But even they couldn't have anticipated the leapfrogging prices, and certainly not that a single work of art, a 1955 painting by FN Souza called Birth, would deliver a harvest of Rs 10.6 crore. At $2.48 million, it is the highest price ever paid for a painting by an Indian artist, and bests Christie's previous record of $1.6 million for Tyeb Mehta's Mahisasura in 2005.

At the same venue, Tyeb Mehta's Untitled work of a figure on a rickshaw too grossed Rs 8.2 crore, easily his highest at a public sale.

The total take from the London auction was $25,825,146, and set world auction records for 12 artists that included, besides Souza and Mehta, Indian artists Subodh Gupta (Rs 5 crore, his highest for an Untitled sculpture), Ashim Purkayastha (Rs 91 lakh), Justin Ponmany (Rs 91 lakh), Nataraj Sharma, Navjot Altaf, HG Arunkumar, Dhruvi Acharya, Amjad Ali Talpur, and for Pakistani artists Anwar Saeed and Mudassar Manzoor.

Christie's international director for Indian art, Hugo Weihe, was ecstatic, claiming the auction "demonstrates the exciting growth of this market", and that "London is a key platform for the category".

But New Delhi-based gallerist Arun Vadehra at least wasn't surprised by the results. "It's amazing, yes," he confirmed from London post the sale, "but it's clearly a quality painting by Souza of the kind that hasn't appeared in the market before." "A Souza of this scale hasn't ever before been in an auction," agrees Ganieve Grewal, representative, Christie's India. "Souza was known for his portraiture, landscapes and still life, and this painting has all three elements, so artistically it is a very striking piece."

That its provenance has a history that shows its inclusion for a Guggenheim award, could hardly have hurt the final validation of the price it fetched.

But still: Rs 10.6 crore? "Souza," reasons Vadehra, "was a colleague of Francis Bacon, whose work sold last year for $6 million, so why should Souza's work fall behind anyone else's?" Extolling the Tyeb Mehta record-breaking painting too as a work of rare quality, he insists that similar works by SH Raza or MF Husain could command as much just as easily "because there are people out there with money who want the best quality".

"I know of this painting by Souza at the Tate Museum that, if it ever sold in the market, would easily fetch $5 million, and there is a Tyeb Mehta triptych at the National Gallery of Modern Art that could as easily fetch $10 million."

Vadehra joins a growing band of gallerists who claim that the market for Indian art had not turned sluggish in recent times but was reacting to works of poor quality. "Overall, works by modern artists have broken previous records in the last few years," points out Grewal. "People are willing to pay for good work."

Meanwhile, at Christie's, they're rubbing their hands in glee. "We are now looking forward to offering Syed Haider Raza's La Terre at Christie's London Post War and Contemporary Art Evening sale on 30 June," says Hugo Weihe. "It's another fantastic, museum-quality work," says Grewal from London, "we think it will sell at a record price too." Art sellers, or those consigning their works for auction, must also be hoping that the stock market stays crazy — at least till then.

That its provenance has a history that shows its inclusion for a Guggenheim award, could hardly have hurt the final validation of the price it fetched.

But still: Rs 10.6 crore? "Souza," reasons Vadehra, "was a colleague of Francis Bacon, whose work sold last year for $6 million, so why should Souza's work fall behind anyone else's?" Extolling the Tyeb Mehta record-breaking painting too as a work of rare quality, he insists that similar works by SH Raza or MF Husain could command as much just as easily "because there are people out there with money who want the best quality".

"I know of this painting by Souza at the Tate Museum that, if it ever sold in the market, would easily fetch $5 million, and there is a Tyeb Mehta triptych at the National Gallery of Modern Art that could as easily fetch $10 million."

Vadehra joins a growing band of gallerists who claim that the market for Indian art had not turned sluggish in recent times but was reacting to works of poor quality.

"Overall, works by modern artists have broken previous records in the last few years," points out Grewal. "People are willing to pay for good work."Meanwhile, at Christie's, they're rubbing their hands in glee.

"We are now looking forward to offering Syed Haider Raza's La Terre at Christie's London Post War and Contemporary Art Evening sale on 30 June," says Hugo Weihe. "It's another fantastic, museum-quality work," says Grewal from London, "we think it will sell at a record price too."

Art sellers, or those consigning their works for auction, must also be hoping that the stock market stays crazy — at least till then.



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