Antique return

This article was last updated on April 16, 2022

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This 10th century Durga from Central Java is the highlight of Osian’s upcoming auction of antiquities. Carved in andesite, a variety of volcanic rock, the statue has a reserve price of Rs 64 lakh-80 lakh.

A piece of sub-continental history went up for auction at Bonhams’s New Bond Street salesroom in Mayfair, London on October 8 this month — a 19th-century, emerald and seed pearl necklace worn by the wife of the last Sikh ruler, Ranjit Singh. The highlight of Bonhams’s ‘Islamic and Indian Art’ sale, the piece fetched more than Rs 42 lakh, double its reserve price of round Rs 19 lakh.

The next day, at a Christie’s ‘Works of Art & Textiles’ sale, one of the highest grossers was an early 19th century watercolour of ‘A Sikh Battle Scene’. It sold for nearly Rs 31 lakh — almost ten times its estimated price.

Clearly, there is a huge market for Indian antiquities. But it’s a market that only exists abroad, limited to auctions at Sotheby’s, Christie’s, and Bonhams in London and New York, and a few galleries such as Simon Ray and Bernard Shapero. In India, in contrast, there’s very little trade in antiques, mainly because of the restrictions put on it by the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act, 1972.

All that could change soon. As per a March 2009 commerce ministry order, you no longer need an import licence to bring in antiques from abroad. You simply pay 17.5 per cent as import duty and register the antique with the Archaeological Survey of India, once it is here.

Following on this easing of regulations, Osian’s, the Mumbai-based art auction house, will hold an auction of antiquities at the Taj Mahal Hotel in New Delhi on October 29 — the first such auction in a long time.

The last one, organised by Bowrings Fine Art Auctioneers in 2002, was mired in controversy over allegations that Bowrings was selling antiques without a licence from the ASI, as mandated by law. Earlier, in 1999, Sotheby’s India had organised a sale in Delhi where it offered some really old bronzes, among miscellaneous late 19th century-early 20th century European artifacts. That auction had a smoother run but Sotheby’s never held another one in India.

Neville Tuli of Osian’s too had a run-in with the authorities over an auction he’d put together in 1999; he was accused of selling a 200-year-old shahtoosh shawl without registering it with the wildlife authorities. “No such piece had ever been registered before in India. It took eight years of fighting in court for the charges to be dismissed,” says Tuli.

There are no shawls at the Osian’s auction this time, but some really old objects on offer — a 10th century Durga from central Java (Rs 64 lakh-80 lakh), an 11th century Narasimha Avatar from central India (Rs 24 lakh-30 lakh), several leaves from a 16th century illustrated manuscript of Firdausi’s Shahnama (Rs 12 lakh-60 lakh),  All of these have been sourced from international collectors who had, in turn, bought them from Sotheby’s, Christie’s or Bonhams — so at least