When Paper Triumphs
Works on paper that usually got lower recognition than oil on canvas has seen a sudden spurt in interest in the art market
Art auctioneer Mallika Sagar looked around the room. There was pin drop silence. Lot No. 4, ‘The Elephant Khushi Khan’, 32.1 x 40.3 cm, opaque pigment on paper, inscribed in Devanagri on reverse; possibly from Dhundhar, Rajasthan was on offer. The artwork was a registered antiquity, a non-exportable item from a royal collection. The minimum estimate was Rs 10 lakh. The bidding was already at double the price. A paddle went up in the back of the room. The price went up to Rs 22 lakh. Still pin drop silence. Another paddle went up. Then a bid on the phone. Another paddle. Another bid on the internet. The bids now started to jump by Rs 5 lakh. Paddle again. Again. Again. Again. Now a phone bid. Silence. Hiatus. “Do I see another bid in the room?” asked Mallika. Another paddle went up. Then another. Another. Bid now at a whopping Rs 70 lakh. Going, going, gone. The hammer came down. Applause.
Traditionally, good art has always been equated with oil and canvas. Works on paper have usually gotten much lower recognition, and much lower value. But at Pundole’s, at a Sunday morning auction (11 March), the art market reposed faith in quality art, not worrying itself too much about canvas or paper.
The remarkable ‘The Elephant Khushi Khan’ painting depicted a favoured elephant of the court, in very fine detail. The inscription on reverse, although partly obscured, appeared to state ‘Paatsah Syaajihaa ki savaari ko haathi Khusi Khaa’ or ‘The Emperor Shah Jahan’s ride – the elephant Khushi Khan’. Although based on the sketch sold in a previous lot at Pundole’s, the painting had taken on a new style that was bolder than its Mughal prototype. The colours were rich and the contrasting tones between the pale trunk and the black mass of the body were striking. Likewise, the bright white costume of the mahout contrasted with the vibrant red of the saddlecloth. For a comparable Mughal composition of an elephant with similar decorative markings from the collection of Howard Hodgkin, the catalogue directed you to Andrew Topsfield’s Visions of Mughal India: The Collection of Howard Hodgkin, Oxford (2012), page 70.
As the auction progressed, some very good works continued to come on offer from the same royal collection. Miniatures. Almost all of them, antiquities. Well preserved. The eight works on offer were all picked up one after the other out bidding everyone else in the room and on the auction lines by Paddle 300. Was it someone from the same royal household trying to hold back family relics and heirlooms? Was it a collector? Or was it a buyer on behalf of a museum? Whatever and whoever, the first eight lots fetched the auctioneer a clean Rs. 1.5 crore. The determined bidder had just stamped out all competition.
The next under the hammer was a set of lots from Bengal and Santiniketan. Works by Indra Dugar, Phani Bhushan Das, Benode Behari Mukherjee, Bishnu Dey, Abanindranath Tagore, Gopal Ghose, Roop Krishna, Prosanto Roy and of course Nandalal Bose. Each one of the works was almost 50 years old, if not more. Almost all of them national art treasures, and non-exportable. Many of them came from the family of Nandalal Bose. Every art work sold at 2-3 times the minimum estimate. Bidding was furious. The Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951) work ‘Tear Drop on Lotus Leaf’ fetched a 550 per cent premium on the minimum estimate, once again drawing a round of applause.
Two days later, Saffronart, hosted a live auction at the Four Seasons, Mumbai. Once again, paper works seemed to do well. The inaugural lots of F.N. Souza were snapped up in no time. ‘Yellow Roses’ by K.H, Ara (1914-1985), a gouache, oil and pastel work on paper fetched a good price. So did a watercolour and pastel on paper from the Ruxana Pathan Collection. Then, there was an exquisite H.A. Gade (1917-2001) watercolour on paper showing the Lehripura Gate in Baroda. It too saw frenetic bidding and was sold well above the estimates.
Which brings us back to the value of works on paper versus on canvas. Considering that works on paper are usually lower priced compared to those on canvas, we think the resurgence in the art market shows green shoots earlier in this genre. Since the operating base in terms of prices is lower for paper works, the percentage of escalation is also visibly higher. An AstaGuru online auction six months ago saw a lot of paper works sell very close to the minimum estimates, or were passed over. Considering the sentiment at end 2017, the surge in prices at Pundole’s and at Saffronart is really heartening.
One could also ascribe the jump in prices to the quality of works on offer specifically at an auction. So, the support received by the antiquities from the Royal Collection could well have been because of the rarity of the works, and the bounce in bid prices cannot be universally extrapolated. But at the Pundole’s auction an aquatint on paper, heightened with gold, by Nandalal Bose (1882-1966) in size just 26.6 x 16.5 cm fetched a whopping Rs 15 lakh though the gallery had estimated the work at Rs 80,000-1,20,000. It helped, of course, that this was again a national art treasure, non-exportable item. Such works automatically attain a certain halo around them. However, the success of the Bose lot only underlines that the goodwill for good paper works was not restricted to any one time period.
A 1962 Vasudev S. Gaitonde work, 54.6 x 74.6 cm, however, was the toast of the auction fetching a record Rs 1.8 crore for an untitled watercolour on paper. Gaitonde’s work was referenced back to the early 1960s. It was a beautiful work, showing the fluency that the master could achieve through wash and calligraphy. To even the uninitiated, it was a work that was understated, yet bold. Simple. Serial. Sympathetic to the reaction of ink on paper. Once again auctioneer Mallika Sagar earned an appreciative round of applause for her efforts in delivering the record price for the work.
Those looking to invest in good art at good prices, this is a good time. The interest in good works is already palpable and visible. Art in India has been in doldrums for far too long now; almost a dark decade. The sale of good paper works at Pundole’s and Saffronart shows renewed interest of collectors in the market. And the interest seems to be across the board, and not just restricted to the posthumous art of a handful of painters that normally find favour with seasoned buyers.
The 10th anniversary auction of AstaGuru has some mind-blowing Gaganendranath Tagore works, gouache on paper with minimum estimates of Rs 20 lakh and Rs 25 lakh. Similarly an Amrita Sher-Gil lot is listed at a minimum Rs 40 lakh for a watercolour on paper. Our belief is that these works will be sold well above the asking prices.
Art is on the re-bound. Those who wish to embellish their collections, better plan for bigger debits to their bank accounts!
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