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Indians Have Spent $250 Million In The Last 5 Years At Sotheby's: Edward Gibbs

Edward Gibbs, Chairman, Sotheby's India & Middle-East speaks to Smita Tripathi about Sotheby's forthcoming sale of Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art in New York on 19 March

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Edward Gibbs, Chairman, Sotheby's India & Middle-East speaks to Smita Tripathi about Sotheby's forthcoming sale of Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art in New York on 19 March. The exhibition will feature modern masterworks by leading artists including Sayed Haider Raza, Bikash Bhattacharjee, M. F. Husain and Ganesh Pyne, as well as the unveiling of Raja Ravi Varma's luminescent portrait of the celestial nymph Tilottama. Held annually in New York during Asia Week New York, the sale on 19 March will offer over 70 lots with a total estimate of $4.7/6.6 million. 

Edited excerpts:

Could you briefly tell us about the upcoming auction and which are the pieces that you expect will garner maximum interest?

Every year Sotheby's has a sale of Modern and Contemporary Indian art during Asia Week in New York in March. We also have a sale in London in fall. These sales are the focus of our international team. Our catalogue is the fruits of many months of labour of the specialist team sourcing things. The reason I mention this is that all the work is sourced from private individuals. Much of it is fresh to the market. That's really a sort of gunpowder ingredient for a great explosive result.

The key highlights of the auction are S.H. Raza's Ville Provencale. It has a great history of ownership. Great provenance. It was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in the early 1950s.

Provenance is a criteria that is becoming more and more important for all stakeholders whether it is museums, collectors or auction houses.

The painting is an outstanding example of Raza's response to the Provencal countryside. What strikes me is the way he has brought an Indian palette to the French countryside. This is definitely Provencal through the eyes of an Indian artist.  

The Raja Ravi Verma is also a key highlight of the sale. It represents a seminal period in the chronology of Indian art. It's representative of Indian artists embracing western idiom but still seeing art through their own particular lens. The subject matter is from the Mahabharat. The painting is of Tillottama, an apsara, a nymph. This painting is a treasure and will fit beautifully in any private or museum collection.

Another beauty is the painting by Husain. Husain is an artist who had a very prolific output. His works are omnipresent on the market. We also have a F. N. Souza. So basically all the pioneering artists from the Progressives as well as the Bengal School are represented in this sale.
What about the antiquity law? I thought Ravi Verma could not be sold abroad as per the law.
Good point. Any painting over a 100 years cannot be sold outside India. The painting that will go up for auction has been sourced from abroad. In order to show it here in India, we have had to do a very high quality reproduction.
What checks and balances does Sotheby's undertake to ensure that fakes are kept out of auctions?
Fakery has been present throughout history. Some of the greatest fakes of artworks were done in the 19th century. They are such great pieces of art that they are collected in their own right. Museums in Europe have galleries dedicated to fakes.

Authentication is a key part of my job so fakes interest me greatly. It's amazing how much you can learn. One of the great charms of working in an auction house is the amount of exposure you get.

The issue of fakery will never go away. But we make a lot of effort to ensure that we don't let a fake slip through. Our authentication departments, our legal department, our specialists all work very hard. A lot of research goes into it. The due diligence is more than it has ever been. We have to feel a 100 per cent confident. In fact, a lot of what we do is detective work. It's a very exciting part of the job. We are sleuths!

It is also worth noting that Sotheby's provides a 5 year warranty on all our sales. We provide warranty of authenticity for 5 years.
What would you say about the volatility in the art market?
I wouldn't say that the market is volatile. I would say it has become more selective. All markets ebb and flow and the market for Modern Indian art is no different. The market may be going in waves but the overall trend is upwards. If you compare the prices today with the prices 2-3 decades ago, you will be hard pressed to find any market that has moved at that speed. Certainly if you started collecting in the 80s, it would be a wonderful investment.  
How large a market is India for Sotheby's? Do you have a number of resident Indians who buy from Sotheby's?
If you look at the last five years the number of Indian buyers of Sotheby's has doubled. In that same period those Indian clients of ours have spent at Sotheby's globally in the range of $250 million. That figure is drawn from all different categories. Indian buyers are collecting jewellery, impressionists, international contemporaries, furniture, 19th century paintings. Jewellery is probably the most significant.

In the same period, the number of Indians who are engaging with us online has increased by 900 per cent. Indians are active in both online sales and online bidding.

India is a very important market for us. We see huge potential in the country. We have invested in an office here. We have invested in hiring talent. We are looking to expand further. We have been travelling highlights of auctions to India for several years but certainly our footprint and presence has increased considerably in the last 18 months.
What about holding an auction in India?
Our primary concern is to answer to the needs of our clients. Both London and New York have proven to be huge markets for Indian art. We are doing our research and speaking to clients, regarding an auction in India, may be when the time is right. Watch this space.

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