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Amrita Sher-Gil and VS Gaitonde take India art auction prices over $5 million

by John Elliott

Saffronart leads auction results with $28m sales this year

Christie’s and Sotheby’s far behind at about $7m

The auction market for modern Indian art has been doing well during the Covid pandemic, but the big international auction houses, Christie’s and Sotheby’s, are not playing a leading role.

In the past four months, prices above $5m have been achieved on two works, establishing world records for Indian modern art and for their artists. Both works were sold by Mumbai-based Saffronart.

In the Ladies’ Enclosure by Amrita Sher-Gil

One was a rare figurative work, In the Ladies’ Enclosure, by Amrita Sher-Gil (above) that went in a live auction yesterday (July 13) for a hammer price of Rs 32 crores ($4.35m) – Rs 37.8 cores ($5.14m) including buyers’ premium.

In March, an untitled 50 in x 80 in oil on canvas by Vasudeo S. Gaitonde (below) exceeded its top estimate and sold for Rs 39.98 crore ($5.55m) including the premium That set a new India record price, beating the $5.2m achieved for another Gaitonde in a Mumbai-based Pundole’s auction last September.

Untitled by VS Gaitonde, record sale work

Saffronart’s total for 2021 so far is now $28m compared with $7.1m for Sotheby’s and approaching $7m for Christie’s (including an important after-auction deal of a rare Sher-Gil work – see image below). Both Sotheby’s and Christie’s auctions took place in New York in March, but Christie’s did not stage its annual London South Asian auction in June, apparently because the pandemic impeded liaison between countries.

Portrait of Denyse by Amrita Sher-Gil, 18⅛ inches x 15 inches, Oil on canvas,

Sold after Christie’s March auction for around $2.5m

India-based auction houses, including Mumbai-based Astaguru and Pundole’s as well as Saffronart, now account for over 75% of the India moderns auction market (see pie chart below)

Of the two $5m-plus sales, the Sher-Gil was the more remarkable. Gaitonde has for years achieved top prices in modern art auctions, which are dominated by members of his Bombay Progressives Group. Saffronart however had one of his works in a 24-hour on-line auction today (July 14) that did not excel. It sold at a hammer price below estimates of Rs 12.79 crore, ($1.74m) – Rs 15.35 crore ($2.09m) including buyers’ premium.

Sher-Gil has a rarity value internationally because her works have been declared “national treasures” by the Indian government, which means that those in India cannot leave the country. Many of her paintings were self-portraits – three of them established her in the auction market in 2015 when they each sold for over $2.5m.

Her previous record of $2.9m was set at a Sotheby’s Mumbai auction in 2018 for The Little Girl in Blue, a small 19 in x 16 in oil on canvas. Dinesh Vazirani, founder and CEO of Saffronart, says yesterday’s sale was the “culmination of years of coming into her own as an artist of repute”.

An unusual 23.5 inches x 18 inches watercolour and ink on paper by M.F. Husain,

which sold in Saffronart on-line for over three times the top estimate at Rs31.13 lakhs ($42,600)

Yesterday’s work was a 21.5 in x 31.5 in oil on canvas painted in 1938, depicted a group of women in a field. Sher-Gil’s artist nephew, Vivan Sundaram, writes in a catalogue essay that “the figures are ‘portraits’ of people known to Sher-Gil, all living in the family estate at Saraya, Gorakhpur [Uttar Pradesh], over long periods of time”.

There were four bidders, all on the phone, with two remaining at the end. Kiran Nadar, India’s most prominent collector, is believed to have won for her Delhi art museum which is open to the public and has many top works.

Sher-Gil died in 1941 at the early age of 28 and there are only 172 documented works, 95 of which are in Indian museums, notably the National Gallery of Modern Art. Born in Budapest to a Hungarian-Jewish opera singer and a Sikh aristocrat in 1913, she was brought up in India and then Paris from the age of 8 but maintained Hungarian links.

Saffronart’s live auction yesterday produced total sales value of Rs 54.25 crores ($7.4m), with 93% of 30 lots sold. Today’s on line auction had sales of Rs 29.3 crores ($3.98m) with 86% of 70 lots sold.

Attention will now focus on the autumn when in addition to Saffronart, Christie’s plans an auction during New York’s Asia week and Sotheby’s will have one in London, providing opportunities for reassessments of market share.

The chart shows the large share of the market taken by India-based auction houses that include Astaguru and Pundole’s as well as Saffronart.

(Christie’s share excludes the Amrita Sher-Gill sold after its March auction – see text.)

Source: Saffronart

[Reproduced with permission of the author, John Elliot from the article published on his blog, Riding the Elephant]


John Elliott is a veteran foreign correspondent, now based in London after over 25 years in India. He writes an India-oriented current affairs blog Riding the Elephant where he also covers art, usually the auction market.

1 Comment

I love both Amrita Sher-Gil and VS Gaitonde's work. Sher-Gil's ability to capture the essence of India and its people is truly remarkable and Gaitonde's abstract paintings have a mesmerizing quality that draws you in.

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