The most important single-owner sale of Indian art at Sotheby's for a decade is expected to make millions, but collector Amrita Jhaveri is finding it hard to let go of her favourite artworks
An art collector's separation anxiety
"I'm hoping for one or two things that don't sell," says Amrita Jhaveri with a burst of laughter. "I'm thinking, 'Can I have them withdrawn?'" The influential art collector is sitting in the cafe in Sotheby's on Bond Street, steeling herself for the sale of a big chunk of her significant collection of post-Independence Indian art. The 43 works are expected to fetch between US$5million to $7m (Dh18.3m to Dh25.7m) among them at the auction in New York tomorrow. It will be an evening sale - a first for Indian art at Sotheby's - with a painting by the modernist master Tyeb Mehta estimated at $1.2m.
There are works by almost every important Indian artist of the past 60 years in the selection, from the titans of the Bombay Progressive Artists Group - MF Husain, FN Souza and SH Raza - to contemporary artists who explore consumerism and the feminine divine. Yamini Mehta, Sotheby's international head of South Asian art and a former colleague of Jhaveri's at Christie's, calls her a "standard bearer" in the field. "She is one of those collectors who, before everybody else has a work by a particular artist, would be the first one in there," says Mehta
The idea for the sale came about when Jhaveri, who was born in Mumbai and educated at Brown University in the United States, phoned Mehta to discuss her future as a collector, how much of her collection was in storage due to lack of space and how certain pieces could bring in funds to enable her to continue buying new art. They decided to organise a single-owner sale and began a series of heated negotiations on what to include.
"It was very, very, difficult," says Jhaveri. "For all these years these [works] were on my A-list; they were part of what I thought of as the core collection. But unless I offered the very best, or close to the very best, there wouldn't have been much point doing it."
If there is anything she could save now, she says, it would be a saffron- and cobalt-hued painting by Bhupen Khakhar, whose works are in the Tate, British Museum and Museum of Modern Art, depicting grieving Hindu men (estimated at $180,000 to $250,000). "His works are really hard to come by," says Jhaveri. "He's very much insider's artist and most of the people who collected his work were friends, so they held on to works and it doesn't come up [at auction] very often."
Another is a painting by Bikash Bhattacharjee of the goddess Durga riding a tiger with an unsettling smile and burning red eyes (estimated at $40,000 to $60,000). It's one of two works by Bhattacharjee that will be in the sale. Jhaveri says: "I was saying to Yamini: 'Can I just give you [the other] one?' but I'd pulled something else out of the sale. She was like, "No, we've got to keep the values. We've got to do it."
If the collection is any reflection of Jhaveri's personality, it's more like an old snapshot than a mirror of her current tastes, which is partly why she wants to "edit" it. When she began buying art, she was living in Mumbai and "looking at the world from an Indian perspective", so her collection "reflected the conversations that were happening in India at that time". Later, on moving to London and marrying Christopher Davidge, the former Christie's chief executive, she got interested in art that is "less rooted in one place only".
Which isn't to say that she doesn't still care about the country's home-grown art scene. As well as ploughing proceeds from the sale back into her collection and doing "more ambitious things" with her gallery programme in Mumbai, she'll be using the money to fund a project space at Khoj International Artists' Association in New Delhi, a grassroots organisation that supports artists from all over South Asia, and donating a work by the sculptor Mrinalini Mukherjee to the Tate.
Although the market for Indian art hasn't recovered from the dive it took in 2008, Jhaveri is confident that there will be a healthy amount of interest from both Indian collectors and international buyers. She just wants whoever acquires the artworks to be motivated by passion rather than investment strategy. "Art that sits in storage is an unloved thing," she says. "I hope that whoever owns them enjoys having them."
Ÿ The Amaya Collection Sale at Sotheby's New York is tomorrow. Visit www.sothebys.com