The Incredible Lahiri Collection at Christie’s Asia Week Auction on March 15

The Incredible Lahiri Collection at Christie’s Asia Week Auction on March 15
An important bronze figure of Maitreya, Kashmir or Western Tibet, Circa 1025, that is coming up for auction as part of The Lahiri Collection sale by Christie's in New York on March 15. Estimate: $200,000–$300,000 (approx. Rs 1.34 crore - Rs 2.01 crore) 
(Christie's )

The incredible Lahiri Collection – a labour of love for art of the medico couple Prof Avijit and Dr Bratati Lahiri – goes under the gavel in New York on March 15. Though two lots from the total of 71 stand withdrawn after the Federal Agents in New York seized the two sculptures believed to be stolen antiquities, there’s nothing that diminishes the brilliance of the collection put together by the Lahiris over several years of their stay in London.

William Robinson, head of the World Art Group under which Indian Art department also falls, writes in the catalogue, “Professor Lahiri bought his first Indian antiquity when he was still a student. Not included in this sale, it was a Sunga terracotta figurine dating from around 2000 years ago. This set the tone of what was to become a fascinating collection. As a collector he very much followed his instincts buying principally from dealers in the London and Hong Kong markets. Over time what was assembled  was a beautiful epitome of the history of Indian Art, with a strong emphasis on the Arts of Bengal, the Lahiris’ homeland, from early periods through the 20th century.” Professor Lahiri is a cardiologist, while his wife is a paediatrician from Kolkata who went on to become a GP in London. 

 The highest priced art works in the auction are lots 47, 59 & 69. Each is estimated at $250,000 - $350,000 (approx. Rs 1.67 crore - Rs 2.34 crore).

Lot 47 is a rare bronze figure of Maitreya from Nalanda, 7th century. Standing a little over 7 inches (19.3cm), the figure is in slight tribhanga pose and shows post-Gupta stylistic influences. This was the period when Nalanda was already an active Buddhist university and monastery, as recorded by Chinese pilgrims. 

Lot 59 too is a rare and fine bronze figure of Maitreya, but is inlaid with silver and copper. The 4.75 in high (12 cm) figure is seated in rajalilasana on a lotus base with his right arm resting elegantly on his raised right leg while the left holds a lotus stem. It belongs to the Pala period, 12th century. The Pala dynasty flourished in the east and north-east part of India between 8th-12th centuries and was one of the last strongholds of Buddhism in India. It is considered one of the golden eras of the Indian sculptural tradition.

Lot 69 is an important silver-and-copper-inlaid bronze figure of Akshobhya from western Tibet, 13th century. Measuring 36 cm high (a little more than 14 in), the figure is seated in vajrasana and is clad in dhoti like the figures in the lots mentioned above. The catalogue states that it is likely that this work of a Tibetan artisan emulates a Pala image because following the destruction of the Buddhist institutions in Northeastern India at the end of the 12th century, artisans from the area fled north to Tibet and Nepal.

Besides exquisite bronzes, the collection also comprises stone sculptures, and paintings by important artists such as Jamini Roy, Nandlal Bose and Rabindranath Tagore to name a few. The breadth and range of the works that make up the collection displays varied interests of the Lahiris in works of art. From New York, Sandhya Jain Patel, who heads the Indian, Himalayan and Southeast Asian Art department, says, “I think it speaks to a level of sophistication to be able to collect across genres. People with sophisticated tastes collect smartly just like an investment portfolio with diversified works of art. This collection is important for those who don’t buy only for investment.”

Given the rising interest in classical arts from within India, one wonders if this genre has the same potential to rise up the graph just like the Himalayan works of art. Patel responds, “I think it would surpass. We have had amazing response in our December Mumbai sales and Indian antiquities continue to do well across auctions. The classical arts follow a slow and steady trajectory but we haven’t had a downward trend in this category in a decade.” 

What would make a collector part with such an amazing range of works, especially when it has been collected with so much love and care? Patel feels that though the Lahiris were selling the works as an entire collection, they weren’t expecting the same person to buy. “I think the Lahiris believe that they are temporary custodians of the works of art, just as people in previous centuries must have been. They must be happy moving the works to the next collector/ next generation of collectors as they themselves acquired from somebody else years ago.”   

What is important is that the rich history of Indian art continues to give pleasure to Indians and historically invaluable works are ready to touch the lives of newer generation of connoisseurs, bringing with them a hint of life in this country thousands of years ago.

The Lahiri Collection: Indian and Himalayan Art, Ancient and Modern will be held in New York at 20 Rockefeller Plaza on March 15, 1.30pm EST

Credits - BY Archana Khare-Ghose | March 14, 2016 
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