ART MARKET / Delhi delights: Is India on the brink of an economic miracle? Sotheby's thinks so - it's holding its first auctions there in October

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The Independent Culture
THE new head office of Sotheby's India is a suite of rooms with a terrace in the Taj Palace Hotel, New Delhi. The millionaire Indian businessman who owns 50 per cent of the company, Dr Bhupendra K Modi, wearing a garland of yellow flowers, helped open the office in May by performing puja on the terrace. This traditional Vedic ceremony of thanksgiving, which involves a brazier of live coals, is performed at the start of any major undertaking in India.

No Indian company can be wholly owned by a foreigner. Hence Dr Modi. He is very experienced at smoothing the way for big international companies. Modi Rank Xerox has 50 per cent of the Indian photocopier market, Modi Rubber supplies 20 per cent of truck tyres and Modi Olivetti is big in office equipment. He will provide Sotheby's with office facilities in 80 centres round the country and - most importantly - with tried and trusted lines of communication into the bureaucracy which governs India whenever problems arise.

Sotheby's first auctions in India are scheduled for 8 and 9 October and look like being very odd events indeed. The whole Indian venture bristles with contradictions but I suppose, given the company's exceptional business acumen, it will succeed.

The sales in October will be devoted to Edwardian paintings of European origin, contemporary Indian art, antique Indian bronzes, European clocks and watches, silver and gold cigarette cases, and a miscellany of ceramics and bronzes dating from around 1900. This dotty mix is dictated by India's heritage laws or, to be more precise, the Art and Antique Treasures Act of 1972. The act states that nothing over 100 years old may be exported and is backed by an Archaeological Survey which is supposed to register every such art work in the country. The compilation is still in progress and is not likely to be finished - ever.

So Sotheby's is mainly selling art created since 1892. The ancient bronzes and a few of the paintings are the exceptions; here the auctioneers hope to create a national forum for the exchange of unexportable works of art.

Up to now there have been very few opportunities for Indians to sell their art; anything particularly valuable and unknown to the authorities was smuggled out of the country and sold in Europe or America. Some such properties have ended up in Sotheby auctions - one of the many contradictions of the new venture.

Naturally enough, Sotheby's have not involved their Indian art experts with the Delhi sale. 'Anyone in the West who has sold Indian art tends to be politically suspect,' Julian Thompson, chairman of Sotheby's, Asia, commented when I pressed him about the attitude of the Indian authorities. So instead of Indian art experts, Sotheby's have transferred their Hong Kong representative, a very bright Canadian called Suzanne Tory, to Delhi. And the big job of collecting art for sale has been given to Patrick Bowring, who normally works in the British painting department in London.

He has combed the country for the stuff that maharajas and rich merchants bought on their shopping sprees in Europe between 1890 and 1930, mostly from places like Harrods and Aspreys. The sales demonstrate that they were particularly attracted by the mildly salacious. Nearly half the 123 lots of European paintings are classical fantasies of the Alma-Tadema type, featuring young girls lightly draped in togas. There's one real Tadema, lots of John William Godward - a well-known adept in this style - and many others whose names are little remembered in the West. Then there is a collection of 32 gold and silver cigarette cases made in Austria around 1900 which look austerely plain but have false lids secreting brightly painted enamel pictures of naked girls - on sofas, in bulrushes, sporting in waves, etc.

In the works of art section, along with a Cartier silver picture frame and lots of cigarette equipment, there are bronzes of young girls whose skirts fly up to reveal their undies when you press a button. The maharajas were very rich at the turn of the century. It is fascinating that this is what they chose to buy.

When they were stripped of their power, and most of their wealth, by the independence settlement of 1947, their former palaces began to fall into disrepair. Bowring laments the disintegration of the painting collections. Pictures he saw 10 years ago which would have been worth pounds 40,000 or pounds 50,000 had deteriorated beyond recall when he went back this year. 'Bird droppings are a major problem,' he says. 'Many pictures were hung on verandas or kept in stores where birds got in. Then there's water and the extremes of heat and humidity.'

The very good collection of 66 early bronzes has come for sale because it is already registered by the Archaeological Survey - it couldn't be smuggled out of the country without repercussions. Sotheby's are hoping to get a local buyer to pay pounds 150,000 for the 11th-century Chola bronze of Siva-Nataraja, and pounds 100,000 for the 12th-century seated Siva.

But their greatest hopes are centred on developing the market in contemporary Indian art which has started to blossom in the last five years or so. The highest flyer is a work by Amrita Shergil, who was influenced by Matisse and Gauguin, depicting a group of women with red chillies scattered round them. It is estimated to fetch pounds 20,000 to pounds 30,000. Maqbool Fida Husain's Figures, estimated at pounds 16,000 to pounds 20,000, will not be far behind.

It was a charity sale of contemporary art which Sotheby's organised for the Times of India in 1989 which sparked the idea of setting up there. The sale revealed that the rich businessmen of Bombay, like the rich businessmen of Hong Kong, Tokyo or New York, liked to be seen buying art. Prices went through the roof and all the paintings sold.

The kind of Indian art on offer is oil on canvas, very strongly influenced by 20th-century Western movements - but rather old-fashioned ones, nothing much after Abstract Expressionism. The artists are highly regarded in India itself but have not been heard of elsewhere. The same kind of Westernised art can be found right across Asia; the Chinese version is tremendously popular in Hong Kong and Taiwan, as is the Japanese version in Japan. In every centre rich businessmen are the patrons of this new art.

It is the belief that India stands on the brink of an economic miracle - of the kind already achieved by Japan, Taiwan and South Korea - that has persuaded Sotheby's to seek a foothold there. Wherever rich people are gathered together, the art market flourishes. There are already a good many very rich Indian businessmen, especially in Bombay; Sotheby's hopes to see its auctions flourish as their number increases.-

(Photograph omitted)

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