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 their provenance is unquestionable.
Antique collectors are however not satisfied. “The Antiquities Act should be scrapped. The trade in antiques was only partially illegal before 1972, after that it became wholly illegal,” says Suresh Neotia, chairman emeritus of Ambuja Cements who built a vast collection of antiques before the law came into force.
“It has completely destroyed scholarship, research and interest in antiques. Earlier you had scholars like Anand Coomaraswamy, B.N. Goswamy and Rai Krishna Das, but without patronage there’s no one left. Does anyone today even know a Nainsukh (an 18th century Pahari painter)?”
Agrees Nitin Bhayana, an art collector. “All the law has done is drive people towards contemporary art, leading to speculation. Also, the argument that we need to preserve our national heritage does not wash. What about the National Museum? How much of its collection is on show? Has the collection ever travelled to Mathura, Kolkata or elsewhere? Artifacts of national importance must not leave the country. But not everything old is valuable. It’s time to get real.”
Mallya and the Sword of Tipu Sultan
The ‘Lion of Mysore’, Tipu Sultan, has a huge fan in industrialist Vijay Mallya. In 2003, Mallya bought Tipu’s legendary sword at an auction London for around Rs 1.5 crore. Two years later, he reportedly spent another Rs 8 crore buying up 30 of the 64 Tipu items that came up for sale at Sotheby’s — his flintlock sporting gun, a three-pounder bronze cannon, an exotic gem-set trophy sword, etc. For Mallya, buying was the easy part — getting them into India fraught with difficulty. It took six months and an ad-hoc customs duty exemption from the Union finance ministry before Mallya could bring in the sword. In triumph, he brandished it an election rally claiming that it made him a ‘proud Kannadiga’.
Mallya even announced grand plans for a museum to Tipu in Bangalore. But nothing has come of it yet. The artifacts are now reported to be on loan to the San Francisco museum.