Treading with Caution: The Art Market in Uncertain Times

by Sonal Singh

Hugo Weihe, Christie’s International Director of Asian Art at HK Spring Sale in 2010, Image Courtesy: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2011

As a specialist at Christie’s South Asian Modern + Contemporary art department, one of my greatest joys is getting to handle and appreciate some of the finest works of art at first hand. Beginning with the sourcing of a piece, to its documentation and cataloguing and finally its sale, specialists work closely with the art until it is finally handed over to its new buyer. Central to any auction be it Jewellery, Watches, Wine or Painting is the property it features. This article intends to explain the processes one undertakes as an auction house while putting together an auction, with specific reference to the South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art Department at Christie’s.

Planning or curating an auction is very much like putting together your own collection. We begin by making a wish list of the artists we’d like to include in our sales. Since we feature both modern and contemporary works by artists from Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, our ideal list is usually quite long and covers a number of movements and generations. At present, Christie’s holds five auctions featuring approximately 400 works of modern and contemporary South Asian Art annually. Quality becomes paramount at the time of sourcing and the departments’ goal is to bring in exquisite and rare examples by the masters, both modern and contemporary.  As auctions are part of the secondary market, it’s important to mention that we don’t procure works directly from artists and the pieces that come into a sale are from collectors, artist’s estates, corporate collections or similar sources looking to deaccession their collection.

Battle of Ganga and Jamuna: Mahabharata 12, MF Husain from South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art, New York, 20 March 2008, Oil on canvas diptych, 74¾ x 107¾ inches, 1971-72, Estimate 600,000 – 800,000 U.S. dollars, Price Realised US $1,609,000, World auction record for the artist, Image Courtesy: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2011

Our search for the masterpiece is always on. As our department works out of three locations – London, Mumbai and New York, we are able to focus on different geographic regions. Discovery is a big part of this process. Some of the most extraordinary works by Modern artists such as F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza and M.F. Husain were bought by international collectors in the 50s and 60s and my colleagues in London and New York are often lucky enough to stumble upon these. We hear wonderful stories of how paintings were bought for £ 5 from thrift shops or sometimes gifted by relatives who had been holidaying in India- the current owners having no idea of how valuable their pieces are today and subsequently being delighted with the sale results.  In Mumbai – where I am based – our office is in close proximity to many of the prominent galleries and this (along with many frequent trips to Delhi) gives me chance to keep a finger on the pulse of contemporary art in India. I’ve found that there’s no better way to learn about art than to experience it for yourself and by speaking to the gallerists and indeed the artists if you’re lucky.  As an auction house, we usually wait for a few years until the artist has exhibited at both gallery and museum shows before including them at auction.

Once we’ve identified the works we’d like to include in the sale, the next step is to agree on a price with the seller. Ranging from the low thousands to a few million US dollars, each piece in the auction is carefully considered. Our team, headed by Dr. Hugo Weihe in New York includes seven specialists from varying backgrounds and approximately 80 years of combined experience in the art world.  Estimates for a work of art or lot are decided together and are dependent on a number of factors including the current market price for similar pieces, rarity, provenance, exhibition history, condition, style, medium, series or year which may be of importance.

Birth, 1955, FN Souza from South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art, Christie’s London, 11 June 2008, Estimate: £600,000-800,000, Sold: £1,273,250, World auction record for Indian modern art work (this stood at the time though has now been surpassed), World auction record for the artist (this still stands), Image Courtesy: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2011

Like any good collection, our auctions also attempt to feature works from different periods by an artist and in different mediums such as canvas, paper, photography and sculpture. This presents our collectors with a range of works to choose from at varying price points.  An excellent example of a curated auction is the ‘The Art of Souza: Property from the Estate of Francis Newton Souza’ sale which was held in London on 9 June 2010.  Comprising over 150 lots created throughout the artist’s career – from the late 1930s through to the 1990s and through his time in India, London and New York – the sale included paintings, drawings, collages, watercolours and prints as well as ten sketch books.  Estimates ranged from £1,000 to £150,000, offering collectors an extraordinary and unprecedented opportunity to participate in an event that celebrated and commemorated one of 20th Century India’s leading artists.

This monumental sale became an important documentation of the artists’ oeuvre and received bids from all corners of the world. The auction truly marked the unprecedented energy and participation for this category. 66% of all lots received online bids, using Christie’s LiveTM and 100% of the lots were sold (including those post sale) making it one of the few White Glove sales in this category for any auction house.

Thukral & Tagra, Phantom @ XIB – V, Oil and acrylic on canvas, 72 x 72 inch, 2007, price realized Christie’s Auction at HK for $475,000, Image Courtesy: Christie’s Images Ltd. 2011

While quality remains a constant requirement for any piece at auction it is equally important for us to understand the market, keeping in mind the needs and likes of collectors at each sale location. Works for auctions in London and New York feature both modern and contemporary art and cover a larger selection. The catalogue is often laid out chronologically and we attempt to include examples from as many movements, groups, periods and schools in the sale, thereby giving the collector a broad representation of South Asian Art. At Hong Kong, our lots come under the umbrella of the Asian Contemporary Art auction and only feature contemporary works. As a result, the Hong Kong sales have become a unique platform for introducing emerging artists along with those working in newer or more experimental mediums at auction, Christie’s HK being the first to feature artists such as Thukral&Tagra, AnirbanMitra and AdityaPande at auction.

In the run-up to the sale, we hold a preview of the entire collection that is to go under the hammer. This is the final stage involved with the ‘curation’ of the auction. As we complete one sale, sourcing begins soon after for the next.  Each completed auction being a learning process – making us look harder, rethink and re-evaluate the ever changing market while constantly challenging us to seek out the ultimate pieces for our collectors. Once again, we are faced with the excitement of discovery and to my delight we begin our journey once more.


Sonal Singh joined Christie’s Modern and Contemporary Indian department in 2007. Based in Mumbai, she often contributes articles on Indian art to national magazines and newspapers. Prior to Christie’s, Singh was a Director of Bodhi Art. Her recent essays include “Chindia” as Market Opportunity (co-authored with Iain Robertson and Victoria Tseng) in The Art Business (Routledge, 2008) and “India” in The International Art Markets (Kogan Page, 2008).


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