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Raza reigns supreme, Souza sets record at New York auctions

The strong sales results bode well for the future of the Indian modern art market

Raza reigns supreme, Souza sets record at New York auctions

The last of the big auctions of Indian art in the first season of this year are now over and have left us with some whopping records. At the three sales of modern and contemporary South Asian art held by Sotheby’s (two) and Christie’s (one) in New York this past week, most of the canvases sold for way above their pre-auction estimates, setting records for some artists and pushing the envelope for quite a few others.

SH Raza’s Kallisté, a 1959 oil on canvas, achieved the top billing among the lots at all the three auctions, as it sold for $5,619,900 (approx. Rs 46.76 crore at current exchange rates) at the Sotheby’s auction of Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art on March 18. It was estimated at $2,000,000 – $3,000,000 (approx. Rs 16.63 crore – Rs 24.95 crore).

Though Kallisté falls a wee bit short of Rs 51.75 crore ($6.27 million) achieved for Raza’s most expensive work, Gestation, at a Pundole’s auction on August 31, 2023, it has landed among the most expensive works, not only by Raza, but of the entire Indian modern art.

The talk of the town, however, was The Lovers, a 1960 oil on board by FN Souza, that sold for $4,890,000 (approx. Rs 40.69 crore) at the Christie’s auction, titled South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art Including Works from the Collection of Umesh and Sunanda Gaur, held in New York on March 20. Going four times past its highest pre-auction estimate, it has now become the most expensive Souza work ever sold at an auction, setting a world record for the artist. The Lovers was estimated at $700,000 – $1,000,000 (approx. Rs 5.82 crore – Rs 8.31 crore).

All the three auctions by Sotheby’s and Christie’s were part of the celebrated Asian Art Week held in New York annually, this year running from March 13 through 27.

Raza’s Domination

Sayed Haider Raza, who remains one of the most sought after artists among collectors along with a handful few of his peers, emerged as a dominant force yet again in the recently concluded auctions. Besides achieving the highest price for any work at these auctions, five of his works appeared in the top 10 works sold at Sotheby’s auction of Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art. Raza’s Untitled acrylic on canvas work from 1978 sold for $1,451,500 (approx. Rs 12.07 crore), against an estimate of $450,000 – $650,000 (approx. Rs 3.74 crore – Rs 5.40 crore).

Adho Man Naahi Dus Bees, a brilliant red abstract work from 1963 bearing the Devanagari script of its title in Raza’s beautiful calligraphy, sold for $685,800 (approx. Rs 5.70 crore) at the same Sotheby’s auction. It was estimated at $80,000 – $120,000 (approx. Rs 66.55 lakh – Rs 99.83 lakh).

An early career work, Tout Houses, painted in 1952 and very distinct from his later career work — which has become his signature and identifier of his oeuvre — also sold way above its highest pre-auction estimate. It went for $482,600 (approx. Rs 4.01 crore), against an estimate of $250,000 – $350,000 (approx. Rs 2.08 crore – Rs 2.91 crore).

At the Christie’s auction too, an early Raza work shot past its pre-auction estimates. Untitled (Gateway of India), a watercolour on paper mounted on board and painted in 1947 was estimated at $20,000 – $30,000 (approx. Rs 16.64 lakh – Rs 24.96 lakh) but was eventually sold for $138,600 (approx. Rs 1.15 crore). Those familiar with Raza’s later acrylic abstracts would be hard put to place his signature on this brilliant watercolour washed in tropical sunlight of Bombay, the city where Raza was living at that time, before relocating to Paris by the end of the decade. However, the star of the Christie’s auction was F. N. Souza, whose centenary is being observed this year.

Global Record for Souza

Of 93 lots sold at Christie’s auction — South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art Including Works from the Collection of Umesh and Sunanda Gaur — as many as 27 were by Francis Newton Souza (1924-2002), widely regarded as the enfant terrible of modern Indian art.

As discussed above, the top lot of the auction, even by estimates, was Souza’s The Lovers, which at $4,890,000 (approx. Rs 40.69 crore) not only became the most expensive work sold at this auction, but also the most expensive Souza work ever sold at any auction. A close second was another Souza work, Priest with Chalice, an oil on board painted in 1953. This work too overshot its pre-auction estimate by a mile, fetching $3,922,000 (approx. Rs 32.63 crore), against an estimate of $500,000 – $700,000 (approx. Rs 4.16 crore – Rs 5.82 crore).

Of the top 10 works at the Christie’s auction in terms of price achieved, as many as six were by Souza. Though five of these six works were atypical Souza and instantly recognizable by those with even just a passing interest in modern Indian art, one that stood out as unusual was his early career work, Men in Boats. An oil on board painted in 1945, it is unusual as it presents a rather romantic picture of common folk, as opposed to their suffering that he often focussed on in this phase of his career. It was made the same year that Souza was expelled from Bombay’s Sir J. J. School of Art — a colonial institution then — for participating in the Quit India movement. Artistically, this was a rather productive period for Souza as he painted village life, and lush tropical landscape of his native Goa. Men in Boats is considered his largest early oil; painted in impasto, it shows a rather busy day at the boats for Goanese fishermen. It sold for $693,000 (approx. Rs 5.76 crore) against an estimate of $300,000 – $500,000 (approx. Rs 2.49 crore – Rs 4.16 crore).

The three auctions by Sotheby’s and Christie’s augur good tidings for modern Indian art as the results have not only thrown records but an overwhelming number of works have sold beyond estimates. There are several takeaways from these auctions, which this column will do justice to in the weeks to come so that the sweet taste of success achieved by Raza’s and Souza’s timeless art lingers for a while.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based journalist)

AK Ghose
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