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Lord Mark Poltimore – Decoding India’s Art

You know you are in for a treat when fashion and art get together under one roof. And that is exactly what Sotheby’s planned for us, as we caught up with their charming Deputy Chairman, Lord Mark Poltimore, to ask about his impressions of the Indian art scene

You know you are in for a treat when fashion and art get together under one roof. And that is exactly what Sotheby’s planned for us, as we caught up with their charming Deputy Chairman, Lord Mark Poltimore, to ask about his impressions of Indian art scene.

It was a glowing evening with an ambience exuberating art, fashion and culture. And the credit goes to the MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta, FN Souza and SH Raza artworks lined up on one side of the wall at The Imperial New Delhi, while the other side gave  a glimpse into the artisanal line of Indian designer duo Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla. 

But it was Sotheby’s, one of the world’s biggest auction houses, which brought all of them under one roof. Collector and author, Ms Amrita Jhaveri, selected 43 paintings from her collection, now named as Amaya Collection, which will be auctioned by Sotheby’s on March 19, 2013, in New York, in the Evening Sale. And it’s a completely private, black-tie affair we are told!

The collection comprises important modern and contemporary Indian Art produced during the second half of the 20th century through to the early 21st. These 43 lots, comprising artworks from Husain, Mehta, Souza, Raza, and Vasudeo Gaitonde, is estimated at approximately $5-7 million. Part of proceeds from the sale will fund a project space and lecture room at Khoj International Artists’ Association in New Delhi.

On the same day, Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla launched the much-hyped ‘India Fantastique’, a chronicle of their 25 year journey, which had already been launched by Sotheby’s in London.

Roaming among these artworks, we spotted the contemplative, but equally approachable Lord Mark Poltimore, Deputy Chairman of Sotheby’s, who was taking in the beauty of these canvases. On getting introduced, his face lit up with a bright smile. An art connoisseur and a treasure trove of knowledge on the subject, we decided to grill Lord Poltimore for some much-needed education on the world of art.

Soumya Jain: How did the collaboration with Amrita Jhaveri come about?
Lord Mark Poltimore: Well, it’s a long story, but I am lucky to be working with Amrita for about 10-15 years, since the time I was in Christie’s earlier. Now we have a wonderful, young lady working with us, who was also from Christie’s, Yamini Mehta. So with that connection and my connection and various other reasons, we decided to sell a small part of the collection in Sotheby’s New York. It’s only a small part, only 43 lots.

SJ: Forty three is not small!
MP: Well it is compared to her collection which is much, much bigger. I think Amrita thought that the collection is very big and she can’t see it all, so these are the pictures she and we have selected, to sell in New York.

SJ: On what basis did you select them?
MP: We always look for quality. We have been very careful about what we have selected. Also, the pricing is very conservative. We have tried to make it very realistic in today’s market. And, of course, Amrita had a huge influence because she had other pictures by the artists, and she had to be relaxed as well about what she was going to sell.

SJ: How does this collection add value to the Sotheby’s portfolio which is already very impressive?
MP: One of a kind it is (with a twinkle in the eye and a smile). For us, this is probably the most exciting collection we have ever had of Indian contemporary art. I think it launches our new team and Sotheby’s India with wonderful razzmatazz. So we have got the perfect scenario – a single owner collection, great examples of the artists works, and competitively well-estimated. We think this can inject the Indian market with hopefully lot of excitement. We believe in India, and I think it has huge potential, as you already know, with many more buyers now. I have been to the India Art Fair for instance, I was there for 5-6 hours, and it was fantastic! I am so excited by the buzz and so many people there. And I don’t think that was the scene 20 years ago! If we have seen that much change in, let’s say, 10 years, we will see even more changes in the future…

SJ: And the changes will be much quicker now…
MP: Of course, with internet and communication being so much quicker. So India is a vital part in our future plans.

SJ: What is your impression of this collection which is going to be auctioned? And which is your personal favourite out of these?
MP: Ohhh, that’s a difficult question. I have only seen, at this stage, a few of the works, not all 43, and I have always had a soft spot for Raza. But there are so many works I would like to buy…though I can’t afford to (said cheekily with a laugh). But I think we made a very strong choice of quality works here. We tried to get the best Husains, the best Mehtas…we have been very careful. So do I have a favourite? I am too greedy for that. I’d like to take all (again with a hint of naughtiness and smile).

SJ: What is it that distinguishes Indian art from, let’s say, European art?
MP: I think they are based on a subject matter, on many things that are important to India, like religion or everyday life or story telling. I would hate it if it became too westernized because they are losing their character then. What’s the point in looking at an object of which, in a way, you can’t determine its soul or origin? And I think where the Indians are being so clever is that they absorb what’s happening in the west and in the east, and they have taken what they like and made it their own. I think it’s a wonderful amalgamation of influences, but it’s always Indian.

SJ: How large is Indian art a part of Sotheby’s business?
MP: Well, we see from day to day, that more and more Indians are interested in art. Not only Indian works, but they are also buying impressionists, contemporary by international artists, objects like jewellery… So our business with Indian clients is growing every year, and when you look at the graph, it’s going nicely up.

SJ: How is an Indian art buyer/connoisseur different from one in western countries?
MP: I don’t think there is any difference really. There are some who are passionate and want to buy specific things for specific places. Others perhaps for decoration, but that’s the same in London or New York. I like the fact that it’s grown so quickly, this love for art. Twenty years ago, when I first came here, I don’t think people here loved their artists enough. They knew about them, but weren’t passionate about them. It’s lovely to see that art is being recognized. And I think they [artists] create something very important. You can be from any walk of life, and you can appreciate art and music, whether you are Icelandic or South African or Californian or Japanese, art and music are great communicators.

SJ: Do you approve of this trend of buying art for investment or because an artist is popular?
MP: I don’t think there is anything new about that trend. This is true all over the world. It’s not up to me to approve or disapprove a trend. There are artists that people feel comfortable with because of their names and therefore feel happy about buying. To a certain extent, it’s a status symbol. But I see a lot of people buying not for investment, but because they seriously love the object. I think that in every society, whether it’s a Gucci bag or you want to go to a concert with the greatest musicians, you are attracted by the name, but you are also attracted because you know there is quality there. By and large, they are important figures in the art world who create wonderful things. I don’t quite believe in your statement. I think it’s just human nature…

SJ: So according to you Indians are maturing?
Oh definitely! Indians are mature, they are savvy, and they are clever. They research! My goodness do they research! They check out the artist, go to galleries, go to fairs, buy books. It’s a very savvy, clever, educated buyer that’s in the market today.

SJ: Russia has been huge part of Sotheby’s business due to your efforts. Do you see India coming up to that level?
MP: Ahh! Russia has been huge for me, yes. It could get to that level. At the moment it’s not by any means. I mean the first Russian schools of art started in the 1850s and then continued until Russian revolution and beyond. And some of the great artists are making millions and millions of pounds. So it will happen, but it will take more time for the Indian market to catch up. Not exactly catch up, but get to that level. What has happened in India in the past 10 years has been absolutely phenomenal. If they keep that progress rate, who knows what may happen?

SJ: In India, we are absolutely enamoured by royals. How much does the royal title mean to you?
MP: (Laughs heartily) I am afraid it’s not a royal title. It’s just a title which my forebears were given by the king for services to them I guess. So, one is proud of ones name, but I don’t think in today’s world it’s that important anymore. I am proud of it, but at the same time, you know I am as ordinary as anyone else! And my children, I don’t know whether they’d like the name, because in English customs, the older son inherits the name. I don’t think my elder son would be keen at the moment. I think he’s rather embarrassed by it. And people always have an illusion that we live in a castle, we are old fashioned, and we have eye glass with the top hat and the cane, but it’s not like that. I live in a small farmhouse and I go to McDonalds, like everyone else does. I have to work for a start! That’s life! But it’s good, and I would prefer it like that any day…