By: Angela Shah, For: thenational.ae
The untitled painting by Laxman Shreshtha caught my eye.
The placid greys of the background contrasted with the reds and oranges in the young girl’s scarf. In profile, she looked a bit wistful, as if she had just realised the loss of innocence required for adult life.
And the price was right: bidding would start at US$1,500 (Dh5,510).
Bonhams, the British auction house, had filled the hotel ballroom with paintings by Indian, Persian and Arabian artists sourced from private collections around the world. One painting, by Iranian artist Mohammad Ehsai, had a starting price of $110,000 (Dh404,000).
The night of the auction, I almost chickened out. The only auctions I had attended were for prize cattle at the State Fair of Texas in Dallas. While I’ve been lucky to visit some of the world’s best art galleries, I can’t say I’m a connoisseur. Overhearing attendees at the Bonhams event casually discuss how one would not bid for a painting so the other could make a successful attempt for it, I thought to myself, what are you doing? This is so not your crowd.
The Shreshtha work was No 18 on the list. While I waited, I studied the ritual of auction. I saw a courtship taking place between bidder and art, between bidder and auctioneer. When the pace slowed, the auctioneer was matchmaker, beseeching the last bidder or his rival not to let the painting get away, coaxing the price higher.
My painting – already I was feeling possessive – came up. Several bidders expressed interest and the price rose quickly. At the $3,000 mark, it was just two of us. The auctioneer pinged back and forth between us as we rose our paddles one after the other, pushing the bid up in $200 increments. Wow, I thought to myself, this could get out of hand.
My previously ordained upper limit of $5,000 – including the bid price, a 20 per cent buyer’s fee and a 5 per cent tax – meant keeping my bid at about $4,000. But for a nanosecond, the hedonist in me thought, pay more. Why not? You can afford it. What a great memory of my time here.
But my practical side – the one who’s patiently invested in my retirement over the years, the one who packs her lunch because it’s cheaper – asserted itself. I knew I was out. My paddle remained on my lap.
Clearly not a man who likes no for an answer, the auctioneer gave me a warm look and a flirty smile. “Are you sure?” he asked soothingly. “You really don’t want to have regrets.”
I wondered if this was the sort of look he employed to attract women. I smiled back but shook my head no. He gave me a look of regret and turned to the other bidder. With one word, “sold”, he motioned to my rival, pronouncing him the victor.