The Navratnas

Old Masters Nabratnas 1Old Masters Nabratnas 2The Indira Gandhi government declared the nine artists above as Navratnas and deemed their works of art “national treasures” through a legislation passed in 1972.The Antiquities and Art Treasures Act specified that from the date of enactment of the law, the works of these artists — some of whom were active in the Indian independence movement as well — were not to be taken out of the country. Most of the works of these artists today are displayed at government-run art galleries in India while around 3,000 others are in private hands. Because of this legislation, very few of the works of art created by the Navaratnas — only those that had been bought by foreigners before the enactment of the law — could be displayed at galleries or put up for bidding at auctions abroad. This is why names such as Rabindranath Tagore and Nandlal Bose have not got the kind of exposure, particularly over the past three decades, that a Hussain or Mehta commands today. This also meant that while the best works of the younger generation of artists began to command their price in crores, the works of the Navaratnas — the few that have been traded or bid for — sold at a fraction of that.

This anomaly was noted by  art dealers like Ashish Anand of the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) who took the opportunity to acquire a great deal of work by these artists at throw-away prices.These paintings could soon be worth crores.For example  an Amrita Sher-Gil today commands a price of over 10 crores abroad.This can be confirmed after Christie’s  first ever auction in India at Mumbai  in December.In all,the 3,000 works of the nine masters in private hands in India can be roughly valued at around 1,000 crore. Ashish Anand himself owns 750 of these paintings, which means he  in all probability has the largest collection of the works of these masters.

The auction will focus primarily on the works of these nine artists sourced from “old school” collectors in India like Ashish Anand along with the works of modernists such as FN Souza, SH Raza and M,F Hussain.The auction is bound to increase awareness about there artists and lead to the discovery of previously unknown works of these artists.BTW given Christie’s expertise in establishing provenance you can be pretty certain of purchasing the real deal.

As of now, among the Navaratnas the only artist who already commands a substantial price is Sher-Gil. This is because her art is available in Europe — collectors abroad had bought her works prior to the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act. A few works of some of the others such as Rabindranath and Jamini Roy are also available abroad. That Sher-Gil died when she was 28 also meant that her works are fewer in number. Many others among the celebrated nine were prolific and also lived longer.Many expect that the price points for the works of these nine artists will improve once the auction happens.They point to the June 2010 Sotheby’s auction of a rare collection of Rabindranath’s paintings for more than £1.5 million ($2.2 million) in Britain, which is a world record. More recently on September 17, Christie’s New York put 81 works of Rabindranath Tagore, Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose under the hammer. The works were sourced from the personal collection of Bose’s nephew Supratik Bose. Christie’s claimed 78 lots worth $2.9 million were sold, of the 81 offered.

However there are fears that the auction will have to deal with people’s perception of these works as the ‘rest’ against the ‘best’.” The ‘best’ being the works of these artists that have been collected and declared national treasures by the government. The ‘rest’ is scattered among private galleries and private collectors.If the ‘rest’ of the works have  impeccable provenance, and can stand at par with the quality of the declared national treasures only then there would be an impact on their prices. The prices may not go beyond a point as there may not be too many good quality works to transact. As of now there is a distinct advantage in dealing in the works of modern artists such as Tyeb Mehta, Raza, Souza and Hussain because the works of these
artists are quantified and qualified, and most of them are with private patrons.The equation can only be changed by a collector with deep pockets and a huge ego, bidding a phenomenal price.

Christie’s is doing its best to stroke nationalistic sentiments and create a buzz.Art aficionados like Harsh Goenka, chairman of RPG Enterprises are cajoling the government to extend tax breaks to Indians who purchase the works of Indian masters abroad and bring them back to the country.

It should be interesting to watch whether the efforts of art collectors/dealers/speculators/investors  like Ashish Anand pay off.

About Keerthika Singaravel

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