Friday, September 7, 2012

Eclectic Art From Parsi Estate Draws High Bids

A marble Italian Sphinx (1920) in the Egyptian revival style that sold for 7 million rupees (about $126,000).
A marble Italian Sphinx (1920) in the Egyptian revival style that sold for 7 million rupees (about $126,000).
MUMBAI—A frenzied two-day auction in late August demonstrated India’s growing appetite for estate sales, arts and antiques.

On the block were items from the estate of Jamshed Jehangir Bhabha, the mastermind behind the National Center for the Performing Arts in Mumbai, India’s only national arts center. A towering cultural presence, Mr. Bhabha, a Parsi, or follower of Zorastrian faith, who died in 2007 at 93 years, is often characterized as a Renaissance man. His possessions were so numerous, and so significant, that the local auction house Pundole’s, which inventoried the estate and has been conducting the auctions, held them in four stages, beginning in April of last year.

The auction was the fourth in a series of an estate sale from such a prominent collector and the proceeds went to the performing arts center, as Mr. Bhabha’s will dictated. The first three auctions brought the center 260 million rupees, or about $4.7 million.

This most recent auction, held in three sessions on Aug. 27 and 28, raised about 189 million rupees. Bidders showed keen interest across the various categories, which included Indian antiquities, paintings, furniture and textiles, as well as Chinese and European porcelain, European glassware, Indian and English silver and ceramics. Bidders included top executives, homemakers, veteran and novice collectors and dealers from across India.

Bidding exceeded expectations for nearly all 380 lots. Highlights included a 13th-century bronze figure of the Tamil saint Sambandar, which sold for 13 million rupees; the estimate had been 4 to 6 million rupees. A 12th-century central Indian sandstone carving of the sun god Surya sold for 1.9 million rupees, more than three times its estimate. Intense bidding for a 1920 Italian marble sphinx culminated with a sale price of 7 million rupees, more than triple the upper estimate.

Also included were lots from the estate of another prominent Parsi, Noshir Nanpuria, who died last April, as well as a few lots from royal families and other notables. The bulk of the auction, though, was Mr. Bhabha’s immense collection.

Mr. Bhabha collected a wide range of items, from fine art to decorative art, said Mallika Advani, the auctioneer and a specialist in Indian art at Pundole’s. “People are willing to pay a lot of money to own a piece of history,” she said. “There is a dearth of good material in decorative arts sourced in India so there is obviously tremendous interest.

A Mumbai gallery owner at the auction, Sree Banerjee Goswami, said: “The market for antiquities, ceramics, glass, silver and objets d’art is growing in India, and the fact that it comes from good estates with provenance adds a lot.”

“It’s easier to buy a known collection than an unknown,” said Oez Yasin, an art consultant and gallery owner from Bangalore.

The auction revealed a healthy local appetite for Asian artifacts. Ceramics and other items from China, Japan, Thailand, Burma, Tibet and Iran got more-than-solid bids, with almost all lots from these regions exceeding estimates.

Mr. Bhabha’s collection, amassed over two generations, was housed in a 16,000-square-foot four-story bungalow in southern Mumbai that he shared with his mother, his wife and his brother, the nuclear physicist Homi Bhabha. Once the house is emptied of its contents, it, too, will be sold, with the proceeds to go to the arts center.

A Cambridge University graduate, Mr. Bhabha joined Tata Steel and went on to become the personal assistant to the company’s founder, J.R.D. Tata, before rising to the position of a director in several Tata concerns, including the parent company Tata Sons. He appeared to have an unbridled enthusiasm for collecting.

“Normally you get a collector who focuses on one category, but he collected both Asian and Western” art, Ms. Advani said. “He also had the vision and foresight to collect the modern Indian art of his times.” During the 1950s and 1960s, Mr. Bhabha was one of the few champions of young, emerging voices in Indian art, including Vasudeo Gaitonde, Syed Haider Raza, and Francis Newton Souza, three artists recognized today as Indian masters.

Mr. Bhabha also championed a number of public causes, not least theNational Centre for the Performing Arts. He consulted with experts from around the world for that endeavor, hiring the architect Philip Johnson to design the theater, as well as Cyril Harris, an acoustical engineer who worked on many of the major American concert halls. An inveterate traveler, Mr. Bhabha enjoyed entertaining, as evidenced by the sheer number of champagne flutes, wine glasses and other barware that have shown up on the auction block. He owned more than 100 tea sets.

After a year and a half of cataloging the house’s contents, Ms. Advani said, she still “can’t say we’ve seen everything. We recently discovered three or four hidden vaults and a locked room on the third floor that was full of light fixtures and furniture.”

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