Art Market: Delhi in-crowd bids with one eye on taxman

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The Independent Online
WOMEN with diamond nose- rings and exquisite chiffon saris and men in freshly laundered dhotis or pyjamas turned out for Sotheby's first sales in India on Thursday and yesterday.

The vast Shah Jehan Hall of Delhi's Taj Palace Hotel was filled with glittering crowds of about 600 people at each session. But the bidding reflected a collision between social ambition and taxation fears. It was fashionable to be seen at the sale and very smart to buy; but it could be guaranteed that lavish purchases would attract the attention of the taxman. In India, the wealthy do not draw attention to themselves.

There were magnificent bronzes for sale dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, reflecting the finest flowering of native Indian sculpture before the Muslim invasions. But nobody dared to pay the pounds 100,000- pounds 150,000 that Sotheby's had suggested, for fear of retribution from the taxman. A 3ft (91cm) bronze of Siva- Nataraja of matchless spiritual elegance - with the four-armed god just beginning the dance of creation - was left unsold at 4m rupees ( pounds 80,000) and a 2ft (61cm) seated Siva on a lotus base only got as far as 2.7m rupees ( pounds 54,000). There wasn't a single bid from the room in either case.

But the crowd did not mind admitting to the ownership of pounds 10,000 or so and their principal enthusiasm was for decorative items up to this sort of figure. One of the earliest Buddha images produced in India, a life-size grey schist head of Maitreya ('the Buddha of the Future') from Gandhara dating from the third or fourth century, found an Indian buyer at 462,000 rupees ( pounds 9,240).

An 18th century bronze figure of Bala-Krishna, dancing with a ball of butter in one hand and a girdle of bells around his thighs, beat its estimate at 132,000 rupees ( pounds 2,640); this god's association with food and juggling cosmic worlds gives him populist appeal.

India's ferocious heritage laws forced Sotheby's to offer a very odd mix of sales - nothing more than 100 years old can be exported, while paintings, sculpture and illustrated manuscripts predating 1892 must be individually registered. They began with a sale of late Victorian paintings, a mix of scantily clad classical maidens and hunting pictures imported by Maharajas in the early years of the century. Only 48 of the 122 pictures sold, virtually all to European or American buyers. The highest price of the auction was 2.86m rupees ( pounds 57,200) paid by a European dealer for a 7ft (2.13m) Bath of Venus painted by John William Godward in 1901.

The most popular session with Indian buyers followed, that devoted to 20th century Indian painting in Western styles. Here 45 out of 72 pictures were sold and a canvas by the nationally renowned Gauguin follower, Amrita Sher-Gil, secured a record 1.1m rupees ( pounds 22,000). Village Group, painted in 1938, depicts Indian women seated around a basket of red peppers.

(Photograph omitted)