FAIR WARNING’, ‘last chance’, ‘going’, ‘no regrets’, ‘sold’. If you’ve ever been to a live art auction, these words should come as music to your ears. Add to that the thud of the gavel crashing on the table every time an item is sold to the final bidder and you’ll know you’ve reached the hallowed portals of an auction house salesroom, where prized artworks change hands, often with a depleted wallet and a dented ego or two.
However, a live art auction is much more than just the sale of a landmark collection. To experience it first-hand, we decided to attend one such event—the 15th-anniversary special live auction by Saffronart at the capital’s The Oberoi Hotel on Thursday. The event was to bring together a momentous sale of modern and contemporary Indian art, and celebrate the home-grown global auction house’s completion of 15 years in the industry. However, what made it more special was the presence of Saffronart CEO, Hugo Weihe, formerly the international director of Asian art at Christie’s, who has joined the auction house recently.
When London auction house Christie’s decided to expand its market to Indians at home after years of selling Indian art to the country’s affluent diaspora in the West, Weihe was chosen as the man of the moment for the auction house’s maiden venture in Mumbai in December 2013. Under his leadership, Christie’s achieved many record-breaking prices that year, including the R23.5-crore sale of Gaitonde’s oil on canvas.
Back to the event, should one wish to bid at a live auction, one must register for a bidder number. Registrations begin at
6.30 pm at the entrance to the salesroom, where some of the lots have also been put up for preview. Those who pre-registered had to just visit the front desk to pick up their bidder number. As the crowd begins to swell, so do the rounds of alcohol and snacks. What better way to lift one’s spirits before loosening one’s purse strings!
Inside, the salesroom is already buzzing with excitement. Donning their smartest suits and dresses, dealers, collectors, consignors and the regulars, among others, fill the seats for what is going to be a frantic and dramatic evening. They have gathered to bid on some landmark paintings by modernists such as Tyeb Mehta, MF Husain, Akbar Padamsee, VS Gaitonde, Manjit Bawa and contemporaries such as Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Rashid Rana and G Ravinder Reddy, among others.
The star attraction of the evening, however, is FN Souza’s 1957 seminal work Man and Woman Laughing, which is put up in the middle of the salesroom right next to Tyeb Mehta’s untitled 1982 oil on canvas. Estimated between R15-20 crore, Souza finally goes for a record-breaking price of R16.84 crore. Mehta’s artwork is sold for R11.51 crore. There are 75 lots in all, of which 73 get sold for a total winning value (inclusive of buyer’s premium) of R82.60 crore.
Lot number 62, by all visual means, is the most eye-popping artwork on offer at the auction. It’s a signature Ravinder Reddy sculpture in synthetic polymer paint and gold leaf on polyester resin fibreglass, featuring a plump face with an elaborate hairdo. Titled Devi (1998), it finally goes for R2.7 crore.
Just to dissect the anatomy of an auction, once a particular artwork is brought in, the auctioneer clearly announces the lot number and increases the bid amount, as the bidding begins and proceeds. This information is also displayed on a large screen in the auction room. To place a bid, one has to raise one’s bidder number to the auctioneer for his or her recognition. One can also go for absentee/proxy bidding or bid live online or through phone calls from virtually anywhere across the globe.
When the bidding is finished, the auctioneer gives a ‘fair warning’, sells the item to the final bidder and announces the price and bidder number. When one is finished bidding on the lots in which one is interested, one has to return one’s bidder number to the front desk, collect one’s invoice and make arrangements for payment and collection.
Saffronart co-founder Dinesh Vazirani starts the auction a little after 7.30 pm with Souza’s untitled landscape, which the artist drew in 1958. The event picks up pace, as he puts one landmark artwork after another under the gavel. The auctions pass in a flash, save for the momentary delays when signature items are auctioned. There is chatter and the occasional applause, as several masterpieces break previous records for the artist, as well as for the country.
The selling of hordes of artwork can easily become a monotonous, droning affair, if not for the skills of a good auctioneer. Vazirani uses his wit, memory and sense of drama to turn the auction into an exciting event. CEO Weihe takes on the mantle from Vazirani after the latter successfully puts 28 lots under the hammer. Before the auction, Weihe tells this correspondent: “I’ve been an auctioneer for several years now, but I’m thrilled to be here tonight since this is my first show at Saffronart. We have several good works in our collection and people will surely appreciate them.”
When asked how he manages to pull through a long and tiring auction, Weihe says it’s the excitement that keeps him going. “The whole atmosphere of a live auction is different. There are the pieces of artwork, the people and the milestones that we achieve. We hope to achieve several such milestones tonight, too,” he adds.
Thursday’s event was the second major live auction in the national capital after the one held in September last year. Raza’s 1973 acrylic painting La Terre had fetched
R8.17 crore in that auction.