After record-breaking sales for the likes of Francis Newton Souza, the market for Indian modernists is booming

Words: Will Moffitt

Asked in a 1966 interview for ArtReview by journalist Barrie Stuart-Penrose if he’d had a raw deal from the English Art Establishment, Francis Newton Souza took the bait. “Bloody raw! Where’s my M.B.E.? Where’s the retrospective at the Whitechapel?” Souza spat. “I’ve been consistently kept out of all the national and international exhibitions,” he continued, leaving for New York shortly afterwards.

While the Goan-born artist felt under appreciated during his lifetime – he passed away in 2002 – there can be no denying the posthumous adoration he has received. This year, on the centenary of his birth, Souza will be the subject of numerous exhibitions in England and abroad. In March, Lovers, one of his most significant figurative paintings, sold for $4,890,000 at Christie’s Asian Art Week.

“Souza moved to England in 1949 and he has been considered one of these kinds of blue chip artists. There has been a huge demand [for his works], particularly in the last couple of years,” Damian Vesey, director, international specialist at Christie’s tells me. A member of the South Asian Modern and Contemporary team at Christie’s since 2011, Vesey ranks Souza in a cohort of prominent Indian painters including Sayed Haider Raza and Maqbool Fida Husain whose works have fetched seven figure sums at auction.

He talks of the market for Indian art as a sophisticated one populated by discerning buyers who are willing to be “really aggressive” to acquire items deemed to be of high value.“When I started in global sales in the category, we were looking at around 50 million in a year. Now you’re looking at multiples of that in a season,” Vesey says, talking of the category’s strong performance across price points as a marker of its resilience.

“The buyer base is not like it was pre-financial crash. That was much more about investors, it was much more speculative,” he explains. “A lot of the contemporary works were just doubling and doubling and people were flipping them more quickly. That's exciting for a market in terms of prices, but it's not healthy and sustainable long term.”

The first auction held solely of Modern and Contemporary South Asian art was in New York in 1995. “It was not only the first single owner sale of Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art, but it benchmarked the category in itself,” says Ishrat Kanga, director and co-worldwide head of the Modern and Contemporary South Asian art team at Sotheby’s.

Kanga describes a period of slow growth ensuing across successive decades with dedicated sales becoming more common until 2006 when the contemporary Indian art market exploded. While it never quite returned to those lofty, adrenalised heights, the modern segment – loosely defined as works made during the late 19th to early 20th century up until the 70s – has blossomed.

“The modern market didn't suffer quite so badly, but it never had that meteoric rise either,” Kanga explains. “Slowly over the decades it has risen in value. Every sale there's a new world record price for an artist, and then the next auction that's broken again and it’s happening to a large number of artists.”

Kanga cites the growth of the Indian economy as a catalyst, with Indians comprising a third of bidders in the South Asian category. Institutional interest has been pivotal too with exhibitions of Indian modernists such as V.S Gaitonde at the Guggenheim and Nasreen Mohamedi at Tate Liverpool and Bhupen Khakhar at the Tate Modern in 2016 delivering exposure and captivating potential buyers.

Last summer Raza received his largest-ever retrospective at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. In September, Gestation, his acrylic on canvas, fetched ₹51.75 crore at Pundole Auction House, making it one of the most expensive artworks by an Indian artist ever sold. This September auctions at both Sotheby’s and Christie’s will be looking to generate similarly eye watering sums with Souza likely to see in his centenary year in lucrative fashion.

Asked why his work is so appealing, Kanga points to its universality. “He is speaking to themes that all humans can find some common ground with. He’s been very vocal about his childhood and that helps,” Kanga says. “There’s something [in his work] that people can relate to, and he was supremely talented.”

For his first six years in England Souza talked of living in dire poverty until he found artistic patronage, describing the ordeal as “six years of starvation, rags and cigarettes picked up from the gutters”. He may have been in the gutter but he painted like a man looking at the stars.