Getting Hammered

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When a Christie’s auction comes to town
A group of people are considering a Salvador Dali painting in the luxurious Crystal Room of The Taj Mahal Hotel in Mumbai. Expectedly for a Dali, there are peculiar elements in this untitled work—a beach under a glorious sky, a woman in a red dress, figures on horses, and magnified commonplace items like a shoe, belt and scarf. The painting is supposed to be Dali’s comment on consumerism and fashion.

At the centre of the group looking at the painting is a woman in a bright sari—and in deep thought. She breaks the silence.

“The ants,” she says. “Look at these beautiful ants.”

The rest of the faces strain their eyes and follow the direction of the woman’s pointed finger. In the left corner of the painting, they spot two tiny ants, perhaps the smallest and least noticeable figures in this work of art. Everyone nods.

“Ah,” they say, “what beautiful ants.”

This painting is being exhibited along with a collection of Indian artworks for anyone who drops by. Today is the final day for public viewing. Tomorrow, the Indian pieces will be pulled down and the hall will be converted into an auction room. London’s famous auction house, Christie’s, is in town—amid much fanfare—to conduct its first-ever auction in the country.

It is remarkable that anyone can get within touching distance of these works by legends, even if it is only the usual crowd of art experts and art journalists who have turned up at the Taj to admire what’s on display. At various corners, men in sharp suits stand in dim lights and abnormal silence, coming alive only if people gather too close to any of the paintings. In one part of the hall, one of tomorrow’s auctioneers is speaking animatedly to an interviewer, suggesting questions and asking for retakes whenever he is unhappy with his answers.

In this gathering of polished tongues and practised mannerisms, a loud coarse voice breaks out. All heads turn to see a middle-aged man who has brought his wife along to the exhibition.

“Look,” the husband calls out for his wife from one end of the hall, “this one is three crore!”

The couple moves from one painting to another, speaking Hindi in a Gujarati accent, tittering and amusing themselves with the tags on paintings (indicators of what they are expected to fetch). Some of the visitors look to the attendants for intervention, but they look back helplessly, unsure of what pretext the couple could be turned out on.

After the couple leaves, one hears the auctioneer once again: “This is going to be an auction like no other…. Wait, wait, cut that out... This is going to be a historic moment for Indian art. We are ready. Are you? ...Yeah, that sounds better.”

When Christie’s comes to town, so does an email that lists dos and don’ts for journalists: ‘No roaming in the salesroom’, ‘No photos of clients’ and bidders’ faces’, ‘No approaching clients’, ‘No stand-up reporting during auction’, ‘ No flash photography’, ‘Only photos of auctioneer, staffers, and wide-angle back-of-the-head-shots of clients permitted’.

The journalists, some of whom have enquired if there is a dress code for the auction, are escorted to the press area some 40 metres away from the auctioneer’s pulpit. Asked to report half an hour earlier, the journalists wait, eyes trained on the entrance to spot celebrities.

Indian art touched a highpoint in the years preceding 2008. Back then, artworks would routinely fetch astronomical sums, and galleries would host frequent parties and exhibitions. Art was seen as an investment by India’s glitterati. Once the West’s Great Recession struck the Indian economy, however, the art market has had an air of gloom and domestic sales have been sluggish.

No wonder, Christie’s decision to host an auction has been met with bewilderment. Just over a month ago, an art market research firm called ArtTactic released a report saying that ‘market confidence’ in Indian art, especially after the fall of the rupee, had declined by 13.6 per cent over the past six months. According to Christie’s, however, Indian artworks have been fetching good sums of money in auctions in other countries.

“There are always indications in the market about when to come,” says Sonal Singh, who heads Christie’s in India and put together the list for this auction, speaking a day before the event. “We feel it’s the best time now. Indian artworks have big demand, not just outside India but within the domestic market.”

  In the past few daysm there has been much speculation over how Christie’s will be received by the Indian market. Will the pomp and ceremony of one of the world’s most renowned auction houses draw out the country’s fat cats, and more importantly, their wallets?

On the evening of the auction, Mumbai’s art collectors make quite a dazzling sight as they enter the hall. There are some dressed conservatively in business suits and saris, while others seem to have stepped out of an entertainment supplement. Some men are wearing colourful oversized jackets with tapering trousers. Several women are armed with clutches no bigger than their cellphones. Those in small dresses shiver silently under the wrath of the air conditioning, while one woman appears asphyxiated walking around in a tight blue corset with a flowing white and blue gown. There are industrialists, bankers, jewellers and well-known gallerists to be identified. And there are hangers-on who’ve come to watch the spectacle of it all.

The auction hall is soon full. Latecomers are accommodated in a nearby room, while many crowd the passageways. Even in a crowd, the rich stand out—trying to keep their shoulders from rubbing with the hoi polloi.

Each bidder has been screened by Christie’s. They have been asked for bank details and identification papers, and also to specify what range they intend to bid in: up to Rs 30 lakh, between Rs 30 lakh and Rs 60 lakh, between Rs 60 lakh and Rs 1 crore, or above Rs 1 crore.

“30, 40, 50, 60…” the auctioneer races through these numbers, as paddle after paddle is swept up in the air with clockwork regularity and the hall’s LCD screens struggle to keep pace with the bids. Each of these numbers represents tens of lakhs of rupees. The painting being auctioned now is a Ganesh Pyne untitled abstract, estimated to fetch Rs 20-25 lakh. But the bids have long left those figures behind.

One of the bidders is a tall young woman who speaks conspiratorially into her cellphone. She seems to be a surrogate bidder, a person who bids for an absentee. Every few minutes, perhaps while discussing a sum with whoever on the phone, her hands cup her mouth as if to ensure no one lip reads her. She bids enthusiastically, but when her absentee bidder eventually pulls out, she covers part of her face as though in embarrassment.

The bids for the Pyne painting touch Rs 90 lakh. The auctioneer, his slickly combed hair and purple tie gleaming under the light of the Crystal Room chandeliers, leans forth theatrically. “Let’s round it up, will you? Let’s make it one [crore],” he urges a bidder. A silence befalls the room. No one expected the painting to sell for so much. A man in white gloves holding the painting for the audience wears a quizzical look, amused with the stares the painting, and by extension, he, receives. Just as the auctioneer is about to bring down the hammer, another paddle pops up and the room erupts in applause. “Oh yes,” the auctioneer says in a muffled tone, “Oh yes.” The untitled work eventually sells for Rs 1.9 crore and the auctioneer tells the room that this is a big day for Ganesh Pyne.

This is a marquee evening auction. In all the exhilaration under bright lights, you cannot tell if it is dark or bright outside. Excited bidders raise paddles high over their heads to place bids. The cooler ones, often making bigger bids, don’t even deign to raise their paddles up to their shoulders. Just a gentle two-finger paddle lift, and, if generous, a slight nod. Each time a bid is topped or lakhs turn to crores, the audience cheers.

The auctioneer is like the ringmaster of a circus. He stands on a pulpit with a hammer, swaying his arms dramatically, almost like a traffic policeman on a busy Mumbai junction, often freezing his posture to wheedle a big sum out of a bidder. He throws in humour to draw out reluctant bidders. When one friend bids a few lakh against another, one of the two auctioneers for the night, wearing a dark bandhgala suit and speaking with a slight German accent, says as he thumps the hammer: “You won’t be eating dinner with him, I presume. Sold!”

The auctioneer is flanked by two rows of tables, with around ten attendants on each side. These are specialists who take bids over the telephone. They speak animatedly and sometimes giggle on the phone as though they have known these bidders for years. Around the room, other specialists hover around, pointing out bidders the auctioneer may have missed.

The paintings that fetch a few lakh are done away with without much notice, until the turn of the two most highly-anticipated works comes up, a VS Gaitonde landscape estimated to fetch between Rs 6.5 crore and Rs 8.5 crore, and a Tyeb Mehta, titled Mahisasura, estimated to go for between Rs 7.5 and Rs 9.5 crore.

Once the bidding for Gaitonde’s work starts, only a few in the audience work their paddles. Most of the bids are from telephone bidders. The figure soon balloons, each bid at least Rs 50 lakh higher than the previous one, until it almost magically hits Rs 20 crore.

The audience, which looked bored with low bids just a while ago, is now at the edge of their seats, recording the proceedings on cellphones. Only two telephone bidders now remain in the race, and the auctioneer asks if the figure of Rs 20 crore can be topped. A conversation ensues between the bidder and a phone specialist, during which the auctioneer armstrongs his voice in: “Remember sir, it’s a small step for you, but a big one for Gaitonde.”

Seconds turn to minutes. The hall fills with quiet anticipation. When the specialist emerges from her conversation, she has a nod and a smile. A few gasps are let out as the winning bid of Rs 20.5 crore is made. An additional sum of over Rs 3.20 crore will be added to this figure as a ‘buyer’s premium’ to make this work—at an eye-popping Rs 23,70,25,000—the costliest Indian painting ever sold in the country.

The next painting up for sale, Mahisasura, also fetches a huge sum: Rs 17 crore. At the end of both, the hall breaks out into raucous applause. The auction has proved to be a grand success. News has already been made. As paddles get to work again, as many as nine more records for individual artists are reset. The auction house also doubles its pre-sale expectations and records overall sales of over Rs 96 crore.

It was expected to last an hour at most, but has stretched to almost four hours. When it ends, triumphant groups make their way to the hotel’s Harbour Bar to celebrate. The disappointed lot hurry down the steps, through the revolving glass doors of the Taj, and disappear into the night.