Auction Review: South Asian Modern Art at Christie’s

Liz Catalano
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Christie’s wrapped up its Asia Week New York offerings with two auctions of South Asian modern art. A timed event ran from March 4th through March 18th, 2021. It concluded with a total of $532,250. The live sale on March 17th achieved stronger results with a total of $4,374,625. Together, the auctions brought in several new artist records with a modest turnout for the category. Collectors also had the opportunity to view contemporary works by leading South Asian artists and start building an auction history for lesser-known names.

“We are pleased with the results this season… South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art witnessed two records and an online sale that performed with exceptional sell-through rates and greatly exceeded initial estimates. The specialist teams have yet again proven their skill in pulling together auctions that speak to current market demands,” said Deepanjana Klein, Christie’s International Head of Classical and Contemporary Indian and South Asian Art.

Francis Newton Souza, Family, 1946. Image from Christie’s.
Francis Newton Souza, Family, 1946. Image from Christie’s.

The March 17th live auction featured Francis Newton Souza’s Family. Souza completed this oil painting in 1946 at 22 years old. Featuring warm shades of yellow and brown, the piece depicts a family gathered for a meal. Empty containers and Catholic iconography surround the group. This deceptively simple tableau also represents the Goan artist’s critiques of capitalism, colonialism, and social hierarchies. Family sold for $822,000 against an estimate of $450,000 to $600,000. This set a new auction record for a work on paper by Souza.

Christie’s live sale featured numerous works by Benode Behari Mukherjee from the Mrinalini Mukherjee Foundation. One of India’s earliest muralists and leaders of Contextual Modernism, Mukherjee often blended Western, Indian, and Eastern influences. Several of his works crossed their high estimates in this event. Frying Fish sold for $70,000, and other abstract canvases pushed past $20,000.

Zarina, Memory of Bangkok, 1980. Image from Christie’s.
Zarina, Memory of Bangkok, 1980. Image from Christie’s.

The live South Asian modern art auction also included post-colonial painter Tyeb Mehta and landscape artist Narayan Shridhar Bendre. Bidding was particularly strong for works by contemporary Minimalist Zarina. The catalog offered paintings, drawings, cast paper pieces, and photographic prints. However, a newsmaking portrait by Amrita Sher-Gil was notably absent from the sale’s final results. Bidding for the rediscovered oil painting failed to meet the reserve. The Art Newspaper reports that this highly-anticipated lot will likely sell privately.

The timed sale of South Asian modern art saw lower prices and less frenzied bidding. Francis Newton Souza led this auction as well with Untitled (Church Interior). Christie’s sold the 1940s gouache painting for $47,500. The auction featured several living artists as well, including Arpana Caur, Nilima Sheikh, and Surendran Nair. Sheikh’s Untitled (Mountains and Mythological Figures), executed in 2002, reached $8,750. The purple and gold-tinted mixed media piece emphasizes the artist’s signature style. Often associated with traditional art forms, Sheikh frequently explores femininity using ancient artmaking techniques.

Nilima Sheikh, Untitled (Mountains and Mythological Figures), 2002. Image from Christie’s.
Nilima Sheikh, Untitled (Mountains and Mythological Figures), 2002. Image from Christie’s.

Christie’s Asia Week brought in $54,490,000 across seven auctions. The auction house reports an 81% sell-through rate by lot. The Luboshez gong especially stood out. This Chinese ritual bronze realized $8,604,000 against an estimate of $4,000,000 to $6,000,000. A print of Katsushika Hokusai’s The Great Wave also reached new heights during Asia Week. It sold for $1,590,000 and set a new record for the artist. 

Digital tools were particularly relevant for these auctions. Christie’s live-streamed the events on WeChat with added augmented reality views for remote bidding. These developments aimed to address both the pandemic and shifting collector demographics. Despite this progress, Christie’s results lagged behind other South Asian art events this Asia Week. Sotheby’s auction in the category finished with a 92% sell-through rate and a sale total of approximately $7.1 million.

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Untitled, 1961. Image from Saffronart.
Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, Untitled, 1961. Image from Saffronart.

Both auction houses offered their South Asian modern art sales in the wake of a striking new record for Indian art. Mumbai-based auction house Saffronart offered Vasudeo S. Gaitonde’s untitled oil painting from 1961 in a March 11th auction. The piece sold for approximately INR 399.5 million (USD 5.5 million). This is the highest price achieved by an Indian work of art in the global auction market.

“The success of our Spring Live Auction — led by a masterpiece by V S Gaitonde, which achieved a world record for the artist as well as a work of Indian art sold on auction anywhere in the world — sets a strong and optimistic precedent for the year ahead,” said Saffronart’s CEO and Co-Founder, Dinesh Vazirani. This recent achievement also points to the health of the South Asian modern art market, which continues to grow around the world.