India could bid abroad to bring desi art home

Written by Garima Pant | New Delhi | Updated: Aug 27 2010, 07:08am hrs
As the market for Indian art, historical relics and other curios from India catches the fancy of the global cognoscenti, the government is planning to put in bids for some of these treasures when they surface in auction houses abroad.

The plan ties in neatly with the emphasis on developing and adding to Indian museums which the government has taken up in a big way, in the last couple of years.

Secretary, ministry of culture, Jawahar Sircar said the government is willing to consider the idea of bidding.

He conceded there is a risk element when a government explicitly bids for its treasures at auctions. It creates a one-way ticket to good money for those holding the items and could instead stoke the appetite of especially the international underground market to increase the demand for Indian artefacts.

However, the plan will not effect any change in schedule for one of the largest lot of Indian paintings that will go under the hammer at Christie's South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art auction on September 15 for an estimated $10 million.

Last year, the government faced flak when it apparently did not make any effort to stop 12 rare paintings of Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore from being auctioned in London. There is no legal provision to stop such auctions. The paintings fetched 1.6 million pounds at Sotheby's, exceeding by a massive margin the pre-sale estimate of 2,50,000 pounds. The government was again wrong-footed attempting to stop a similar auction of Mahatma Gandhi's belongings in New York.

Sircar insisted that the bidding idea is still nascent. The government will, in any case, have to be selective in what it bids for and where. In a speech at Kolkata this year, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who also holds the charge of the ministry, said he wanted Indian museums to be on par with the Smithsonian, the Hermitage or the British Museum.

For the government, this could, however, mean setting aside a sum explicitly for such purpose in the ministry's budget. Since there is no way to judge the requirements for any financial year a priori, the departments will have to figure that out.

Over 100 artworks by modern masters SH Raza, FN Souza and MF Husain alongside big names in contemporary art like Subodh Gupta, Rashid Rana and Atul Dodiya will feature in the sale here, expected to realise in excess of $10 million.

Renu Modi, director of the Delhi-based Gallery Espace feels government support is a feasible idea. If the Government of India buys and gets Indian treasures back to the country, customs duty and other such hassles will be easy to negotiate and will also draw the corporate world into buying Indian art, says Modi.

The Rs 2,000-crore Indian art market will benefit a great deal, believes Arun Vadehra, director of Vadehra art gallery in Delhi. The practice is common across the globe. Just that the Indian government hasnt shown any interest till now, says Vadehra.

However, artist Subodh Gupta, whose Two Cows (estimate: $280,000-350,000) is one of the major highlights of the sale, believes that its difficult to ascertain as to where the government will get the money from to bid. If the government cannot buy works from the artists and put it in the national gallery, I dont know how will they be able to buy at these auctions, says Gupta.

The plans are an indication of how the government is pushing the often moribund ministry to make the best use of what India has to offer. The ministry has already completed a huge expansion of the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi to showcase for the guests at the Commonwealth Games.