RABINDRANATH TAGORE, Untitled (Four Figures), 1938, ink on paper, 40.5 × 62.5 cm. Courtesy Sotheby’s London.

Selling India By the Pound

UK India

Recent months have witnessed unprecedented enthusiasm for Indian art on the auction block. On June 9, a dedicated sale at Christie’s London realized twice its asking prices for 152 works by the celebrated Indian modern master FN Souza, while its June 10 South Asian Modern + Contemporary Art sale yielded an impressive GBP 2.4 million (including buyer’s premium) for Saurashtra (1983), a large acrylic-on-canvas by SH Raza. This is the highest price ever paid for a painting by a living Indian artist. Saffronart, a ten-year-old Indian online auction house, held its Summer Auction on June 16–17, and both modern and contemporary Indian artists doubled their estimated prices thanks to buyers both in India and abroad.

Another Indian art sale, however, had resonance far beyond the bidding rooms. On June 15, Sotheby’s London auctioned 12 paintings by Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), the artist, Nobel Prize-winning poet and enduring cultural icon in both India and Bangladesh. The dozen works on paper fetched GBP 1.6 million. One lot alone, an untitled portrait of a woman that sold for £313,250, trumped the £250,000 presale estimate for the entire collection. The sale’s outcome, in hindsight, is consistent with a collection of such rarity. Sotheby’s described the “museum-quality” works’ provenance as “distinguished” and “impeccable.”
Yet while Sotheby’s and the Dartington Hall Trust—the South Devon-based charity that sold the Tagore collection to raise funds for its programs—rejoiced at the implications of the sale, in India the announcement of the auction in May elicited a nationalistic reaction against the loss of cultural treasures from the public domain. Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee, West Bengal’s chief minister and a senior leader of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), which has ruled the state since 1977, wrote an open letter to prime minister Manmohan Singh urging him “to take all necessary steps to bring back these paintings to India.”

The paintings were a gift from Tagore to his friends Leonard and Dorothy Elmhirst, the founders of the Dartington Hall Trust. Leonard worked as Tagore’s secretary and was put in charge, as a young agronomist, of the Institute of Rural Reconstruction, a farm that Tagore started in 1922 to test his concepts of development. Funding for the project came from the American heiress Dorothy Whitney Straight, whom Leonard later married. Legally, there was no question that the paintings were the Dartington Hall Trust’s property. “This will take time to sort out,” read prime minister Singh’s deferential first statement.

As pressure grew, the prime minister relented. Ministry of Culture secretary Jawahar Sircar went to London, reportedly to ask Sotheby’s to withdraw the paintings from the auction, though the reasons for his visit were never confirmed—the ministry was quick to point out that the government of India had no official position on the matter. The auction house would not budge; it is speculated that Sotheby’s has better lawyers than the Indian government. As protests, offers and exhortations mounted, the auction house took the opportunity to state that “Sotheby’s and Dartington Hall Trust would both be delighted if the works were returned to India.”

The Times of India reported on June 17 that the auction’s most strident opposition came from Visva-Bharati, the university founded by Tagore in 1951, which insisted that the government buy the collection ahead of the auction. According to the newspaper, the university also approached the British Museum to buy the collection on the university’s behalf. Jan Stuart, keeper of the Department of Asia at the British Museum, did in fact participate in the sale, but could not match the winning bid. Stuart is thought to have been bidding in collaboration with Rabindra Bhavana, the Tagore museum in Santiniketan. Tagore’s Nobel Prize for Literature was stolen from Rabindra Bhavana in 2004, and it has yet to be recovered.

Although Sotheby’s did not disclose the identities of the successful bidders, media reports have suggested that Pakistani and Bangladeshi collectors bought the works. The name of London-based Bengali cardiologist, Abhijit Lahiri, also figures among the possible bidders—it is speculated that he could bring the paintings back to a public collection in India. Such a possibility recalls the outcome of the 2009 sale at the Antiquorum auction house in New York of Mahatma Gandhi’s glasses, leather sandals, pocket watch and supper bowl. Then, too, the Indian government had tried and failed to prevent the sale. It was revealed only after the auction’s close that an Indian entrepreneur, Vijay Mallya, had won the auction on behalf of the country.

After years of struggle to find global buyers for Indian artists, the furore over the Sotheby’s auction confounds India’s growing enthusiasm for top-tier collecting and its recent faith in market forces. Speaking to ArtAsiaPacific from New York, the Nobel Laureate’s great-grandson Sundaram Tagore declared that there are more important issues at play than the paintings’ location: “Rabindranath Tagore was a hardcore internationalist—he would have been delighted to know that his work is traveling the globe. People bought this work because they value it, and they will preserve it. 
Back in India, these works might be locked in a trunk; we are no less likely to see them now, after this sale. The circulation of art humanizes the world, and Tagore’s whole life was given to that goal.”