The Tribune - Spectrum


Sunday, December 29, 2002
'Art and Soul

The world of art sales
B. N. Goswamy

Visitors at an auction preview
Visitors at an auction preview

Once or twice a year, I’ll fall in love with a picture and even if I don’t make money on it, the thrill of ownership is worth it. Something about the chase, and going after a good picture and buying it.

I still get that adrenalin rush before the lots I want to buy are offered. It’s not a pleasant experience. I find it quite hair-raising: your heart starts to pound and you know the lot is coming up and then the bidding starts and you have to gauge the best time to start bidding.

— Johnny van Haeften

I own 20 early Italian paintings. I know of only one other collector who focuses on this area and if I bought those pictures to sell, there would be no clients except me. I have an entire dining room full of them and this gives me a familiarity with them, so recognition comes easily. I was bidding for the Getty on Rubens’s ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ which made 49.5 million pounds sterling/$ 76.7, this 11th July at Sotheby’s, London. I thought we had it at just over $ 70 million; I never imagined it would go to a private buyer—David Thomson, son of Lord Thomson of Fleet—at that price.

—Richard Feigen

Caught in a time warp
December 15, 2002
Crafts and craftspersons
December 1, 2002
Of ‘golden pens’ and others
November 17, 2002
Portraying the Parsis’ past
November 3, 2002
Of girdles, sashes & patkas
October 20, 2002
Celebrating with the Lion Dance
October 6, 2002

An elegy to a bygone era
August 25, 2002
Those seductive jades
August 11, 2002
Gifts from an ambassador
July 28, 2002
Enigma of the Iron Pillar
July 14, 2002
Having a keen eye
June 30, 2002
Zen and the art of archery
June 16, 2002
Art from the south seas
June 2, 2002
To collect and then to donate
May 19, 2002
An estate of the mind
May 5, 2002
Rama’s journey in San Diego
April 21, 2002

RANDOM thoughts like these, they come from two major art dealers, one based in London and the other in New York, or figures like these, would, for most of us, sound as if they were coming from some strange, distant world with which we have no connection. Even the language appears somewhat unfamiliar. And yet this world—the world of collecting, and of art auctions—is all too real, and countless persons across the globe spend every day of their lives in it: a world crammed with hundreds of art auction houses, tens of thousands of art dealers, and astronomical figures running into billions of pounds, or dollars, or whatever.

Given the complexity, and the near confusion, that this world represents, I was not surprised that someone should come out with the kind of publication that I received the other day with the latest issue of that fine journal that I subscribe to: The Art Newspaper. Titled Guide to Art Auctions: Worldwide, this appeared in the form of a supplement to the November issue of the journal, and is packed tight with information. The Editor’s introduction to this new publication, and the anticipated range of advertisements apart, the issue contains two short articles based upon interviews with some major art dealers. But the substance of it consists of an index to art auction houses by specialty; a selection of recently sold major works listed country-wise; and, of course, a detailed Directory of Art Auctioneers that runs into nearly 40 densely printed pages. This is information that boggles the mind. No part of the world is left uncovered; no area of art or art-related subjects is omitted. To take an example: in the index by specialty section alone, where one might ordinarily expect only specialisations such as paintings or sculptures or textiles or prints and drawings and the like, one comes upon entries relating to auction houses that concern themselves with American historical artefacts and art deco, as much as Asian art and Bauhaus and antiquarian books. There are houses that deal in carpets and ceramics, ethnographica and couture, glass and silver and wine, medals and sporting memorabilia, musical Instruments and photographs. All that goes on the block seems to be here.

None of these facts and figures, however, captures anything of the excitement, that rush of adrenalin that everyone speaks of, which goes with an auction. Money, and the pride of ownership, are of course the principal themes. And the anticipatory air, the hushed silence as it all begins, the light swish of paddles, the mutually understood gestures—a mere raising of the eyebrow, the bending of a finger, the scratching of the nose—that signify a raise by a known bidder, the nudging and goading of his public by the auctioneer, the final fall of the hammer, are all a part of the scene. And people who attend these auctions on a regular basis are all as full of stories about what happened once, as hunters are. The mistakes, the near-misses, the triumphs, all become a part of auction lore. We in India know very little of this, for art auctions here are relatively recent, besides being remarkably infrequent. And most that anyone outside of the field might have heard of here are the high prices that some works of contemporary Indian art have fetched recently: the Rs 10 lakh or above by a Husain many years ago, a figure hovering around two crores of rupees by a Tyeb Mehta this year. But one has to be at a major auction abroad to sense the electricity in the air. For millions come into play (more than $ 38 million for a Cezanne, 5 million pounds for a Michelangelo, 28 million pounds for a Rembrandt, a year ago!), as does, ever so often, prestige.

As I said, all this is from another, distant world, as it were.

Going back in time

One of the bits of information that I picked up from the publication on art auctions was the brief history of some of the great auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s included. The oldest auction house, however, was neither in England, nor in the USA, I found out: it started in Sweden. AB Stockholms Auktionsverk was the name. Founded in 1674 by the Governor of a Swedish province, it held complete monopoly over auctions for a long time, and auctioned everything that could go on the block, including—at that time—livestock and grain. But, with time, it acquired great prestige, even the kings of Sweden being counted among its clients. Today, the house deals almost exclusively in fine arts and antiques falling in various categories.