July 22, 2012

How would you evaluate this year’s Modern and Contemporary South Asia Art sale at Bonhams?

It went off pretty well, under the circumstances. On the day it seemed that some of the Indian pieces would not sell. Despite the scare, we are the only auction house this season to have had a record price on any artist, but it has been very, very, tough. The Sotheby’s sale was the next day and Christie’s followed a few days after. They had a similar sort of result in terms of percentage sold, but, of course, they had higher-value Lots. However, bar a few works that went way over the estimate, in their sale and in ours, the market is not like it was in 2007 and early 2008 when Lots were going five, six and ten times more than the estimate.

Gulgee’s 1965 work titled ‘Buzkashi,’ which depicts Afghanistan’s national sport, was one of the highlights of this section, more than doubling its upper estimate to make £61,250. Please comment.

The Gulgee is a very rare work that went triple of the high-reserve price because it is an exceptional painting. I have seen a lot of works by Gulgee with collectors and in his museum, but nothing like this has come up in the market so far.

What was the criterion for this particular selection of Pakistani contemporary art?

I have been in the business about 20 years and this is not a curatorial process. We are not putting together an exhibition. At an auction house, it’s a commercial enterprise and we are at the mercy of the people wanting to sell their artwork. I am not at liberty to find the best Pakistani art, but we attempt to source the best works of the top artists that do well at auction, mainly the masters.

It is a gallery’s job to exhibit contemporary artists, but if we obtain a few good pieces, then we’ll put them in as we did for this sale, since we have a wide base of collectors that collect contemporary works.

How do you put a good sale together?

Predominantly, a key impetus to putting a good sale together is artwork in private collections, all over the world. Since we are dealing with an international market we look for works which have not been seen, are new to the market and which dealers haven’t got. We look for works that have just been sitting on people’s walls for the past few decades — those are the items that do well.

Gulgee’s ‘Buzkushi’ was bought by an American visiting Pakistan sometime in the late ’60s or early ’70s, and it had been with him in Washington D.C. since then. No one had seen or heard about it but we were able to get the painting. Bonhams, and auction houses in general, need to specialise in similar purchases because that’s when we see the best results. And that’s what we try and do over and over again.

How do you source paintings from private collections?

Well, mostly through word of mouth. Also, most sources know Bonhams and they come to our worldwide network of offices which is fairly vast. Maybe they go to our competitors first, but since we are an established name for Pakistani masters and get the world record prices for Pakistani art, they usually come to us. We are the leaders in Pakistani art, we get the best prices and get the maximum number of Pakistani artists at our auctions. This time the ratio of Pakistani art matched Indian— it was half and half.

How do you tell the real from the fake, especially masterpieces by deceased artists?

To authenticate an artwork, for example a Sadequain, we take the opinion of three or four people, collectors and other artists who have worked with him. If there is even one percent doubt we will not add it to our sale. If authenticity is questionable, once the artwork is in the catalogue, we would immediately take it out of the auction. Our regular collectors know this.

In Pakistan, there are no estates for these artists, so we have to complete the authentication process ourselves. Only Sadequain has an estate based in San Diego and we do incorporate their opinion. Authentication is an extremely lengthy process, especially for the price that we achieve for some of these artists. Another gallery or auction house may not have the time to email images to five different people, for a £15,000, Sadequain! But we go out of our way to do this, and that is why we have established our name in Pakistani art. We conduct very, very stringent tests, even going so far as to do a comparative assessment of his handwriting. For a Chughtai, we would also conduct similar consultations. Of course, provenance is a major issue with someone like Chughtai. It is a policy at Bonhams that we provenance who the work belonged to, we encourage our sellers to put their names in and when we are allowed to, we always disclose the owner’s identity in our catalogues and on our website.

Chughtai’s watercolour, ‘Untitled (Girl with Instrument)’, belonged to Justice S.A. Rahman’s collection and was gifted by the artist to him, so there is no question about its authenticity. An ‘Untitled,’ oil painting by Gulgee was sourced from the Noon family, who even gave us a photo of Gulgee in their home, photographed with the painting on sale.

The more evidence and history we can show our clients the better. That’s what we concentrate on. We try to get the best work from the best collections, which would never be on the market otherwise and, therefore, we get the best prices. And when we get the best prices, we get the next auction with Pakistani art together. And since I am from Pakistan, this objective is very dear to me.

Are international buyers wary of buying Pakistani art?

International collectors don’t want to buy in Pakistan because they are aware of the fakes floating around in the market, especially the masters, such as Sadequain, Jamil Naqsh and Chughtai. But with us, they know that we will have authenticated the piece and provide a guarantee.

Is the situation similar for Indian art selected for auction?

There are not so many fakes in the Indian market, for example, so it’s very easy to put together a sale. But in our market, there are more fakes than there are real, of Chughtai, Allah Bux, Bashir Mirza even Jamil Naqsh, who is alive. We take a lot of trouble to source Pakistani art and authenticate it. Which organisation or dealer or gallery would put in the effort to authenticate a £15, 000 Sadequain compared to a £150, 000 M.F Husain? It takes a lot of effort to get these pieces authenticated.

I get at least two dozen emails a week with photos of fake Sadequains — no serious art organisation will put up with that. I have refused several original pieces because of the proliferation of fake Pakistani masters. Why, then, would serious collectors consider Pakistani art when there’s such a choice out there?

What is the difference between Indian and Pakistani art at auctions?

The price points between Indian and Pakistani art are very, very different, and quite far from each other. Pakistani art is good and prices are increasing slowly and steadily. But they need to go up a lot more and a lot quicker.

Will Bonhams feature Pakistani artists in larger numbers each year?

If we find good quality, authentic pieces, then of course we will put a good sale together. We were lucky this year that half the number of Lots were Pakistani, but it may not be the case every time. I am hoping to do this again next year but the quality of the work has to be very good since our collectors won’t settle for anything less.

How are fakes in the Pakistani art market affecting Pakistani art sales in the international market?

A great painting by Sadequain should be priced a lot higher, especially when you compare it to the worldwide prices of say Chinese or Russian art or art from emerging markets or Middle Eastern art. While international collectors are wary of this market, even if they like the work, Pakistani collectors don’t seem to have a problem buying a fake. I have a very hard time understanding why they do this. There is a whole network of art collectors, fakers and gallery-owners, because wherever there is a buyer for a cheaper, fake work then, of course, there are going to be sellers and makers. This spoils the integrity of the real art market and in other countries there would be laws against it — it’s a criminal offence. And I have to reiterate here that these are serious collectors who proudly display their fakes. I don’t know when it became alright to do this.

Sometimes the real works are mixed in with the fakes. Buyers need to be more knowledgeable about this because they may not even be aware of purchasing a fake. What does this have to say about us as a nation and as a people? It shows that everything goes. If you really want something and can’t get the real thing, then put up a poster, but please don’t get a fake.

I don’t know which galleries are doing this since I don’t come to Pakistan that often, but it will have a very negative long-term effect in the international market. It perpetuates a negative image of the country’s art, especially that of the younger, newer contemporary artists who are trying so hard to break into the international art world.

Works by Pakistani masters and young contemporary artists have sold at fantastic prices at art sales in the West. How does this profit artist and country?

With the negative there is always a positive. If we weren’t selling them, no one would be selling them, there would be no record price and no one would be writing about it. International art aficionados would not know who the Pakistani masters are, they would never see them. There are no museums to go and see them, they are not in any museums in the UK and they are not even seen in the museums of Pakistan. Where would you go and see an early work of Gulgee and where would you go to see a good Sadequain? How many people go to the National Art Gallery in Islamabad, especially international collectors and the international press?

How have you increased your buyer base?

We’ve found that online bidding has widened the market and opened it up to younger, newer collectors. Online images are even better than in a catalogue and one can also see the close-up of each painting. This has allowed people, who would never consider buying art at an auction in London, to think about it. The Bonhams preview at Art Dubai, this March, also helped sales and there were several people who bid from Dubai, but not as many as we had hoped, considering we previewed there. When Bonhams had auctions in Dubai, wealthy Pakistanis were active bidders but it’s harder, of course, to get them to bid in London.

Pakistani art at London’s leading auction houses this summer:

Under the Hammer

The writer is a former assistant editor at Newsline