By the time we make our way to the second iteration of premier global auctioneer Christie’s’ India sale, we feel quite like the white rabbit that Alice follows into a different universe, if only because we spend half the journey scurrying along and the other cursing and staring blankly at our watches. Zipping towards Apollo Bunder in the back of a classic kaali-peeli like jewel thieves from one of those ’70s Bollywood thrillers, we rush into the Taj’s warmly-lit belly just as Tyeb Mehta’s Untitled (Falling Bull) abstract piece goes under the hammer for a whopping ₹17.5 crore (including buyer’s premium). Senior Taj staffers apologetically steer us towards the secondary room, where a dour-faced Christie’s employee stares down a rapidly thinning audience that sits with eyes peeled towards the screen there. On it is displayed lot number 15 of the collection that Christie’s put on the block on December 11, 2014, and the spare mathematical figures accompanying it instantly make us think about 2BHK apartment prices in Borivli.
For auction virgins whose best frames of reference for such events are weepy Hindi movies (with their archetypal business-thapp-family-kicked-out-nilami scenes), this was perhaps our best possible introduction to the world of art sales and auctions. This is new ground for London-based Christie’s as well, which only opened its first India office in Mumbai in 2013 and held its inaugural auction last December. It has since opened another office in the national capital and, after last year’s debut at the India Art Fair, is currently participating in the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. Buoyed by the high-nineties percentage of lots cleared in its last auction, with an abstract work by VS Gaitonde going for world-record levels of ₹23.7 crore, Christie’s embarked on an equally successful second round this year, with the auction worth a combined ₹75 crore. Clearly, the piddly lakh-odd-rupees sales that made our heads lighten and stomachs turn were the tamer ones of the day.
The process behind the pricing and sale of the 70-odd lots was thoroughly entertaining as well. Many of the pieces received heightened bids just by virtue of the names associated with them — the Husains, Souzas and Razas of the Indian Modernist art movement. Nevertheless, the lots all benefited from a measure of gentle hectoring by the mild-mannered auctioneer, who egged on the assembled moneybags with his trademark Brit humour. Once we were ushered into the Crystal Room — lined on both sides with some of the pieces to be auctioned and packed to the brim with rows upon rows of bidders — however, we realised what a role atmospherics play at such events. The gavel that came smashing down at the closing bid of a piece was now revealed as a small, compact device, though we still marveled at just how the auctioneer could hear the bids so clearly in the cavernous room.
More so, because the backbencher trope seemed to extend to this setting as well — at the back of the room, there were a lot of high heels air-kissing and surreptitiously turning around to see if they had been recognised. Unfortunately, press photogs had eyes only for the rare canvases on display, showing ramp photographer-levels of frenzy when a luminescent work by VS Gaitonde went on the block. As we waited for some action, mulling over some basic questions — what happens if bidders default on payments, how does the auction house ensure that the paintings marked ‘national treasure, not for export’ are not shipped out of the country, what kind of returns do people get on art investments — a set of paintings by Bengali artists that we had marveled at at another exhibition went up, one by one.
Just as we dream about being able to afford a tiny piece of the art world someday, Nobel laureate and national icon Rabindranath Tagore’s pocket notebook sells for a whopping ₹2.06 crore (including buyer’s premium), four times its pre-sale estimate. And when the unassuming chap in denim shirt and chinos at the back of the room casually raises his hand and drops a cool ₹95 lakh on a Husain work, we realise it is time to go home.
—With inputs from Laveena Iyer