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How a Danish family built an extraordinary collection of modern Indian art

A work by VS Gaitonde is projected to fetch £1.5-2 million at a Sotheby’s auction tomorrow. Lounge finds out more about it and the other masterpieces by Indian modernists going under the hammer

Gunnar and Inger Hansen with their family.
Gunnar and Inger Hansen with their family.

The name of VS Gaitonde shot into prominence in the global art market in 2013, after an oil painting by the artist fetched 20.5 crore at a Christie’s auction in India. The huge interest it generated led to a retrospective at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York, the following year. Since then, Gaitonde’s work has featured in auctions regularly and sold for impressive sums.

Although critically admired by his contemporaries, Gaitonde’s commercial recognition came much later, almost entirely posthumously. Last month, a painting by him set a world record for Indian art by fetching 32 crore at a Pundole’s auction. An upcoming auction by Sotheby’s on 29 September estimates one of his paintings to fetch £1.5-2 million ( 15-20 crore). Apart from Gaitonde’s work, the auction features paintings by India’s other modernist masters such as Bhupen Khakhar, Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar down to Arpita Singh, Nalini Malani and Mithu Sen.

A bulk of the paintings was collected by a Danish couple called Gunnar and Inger Hansen, who lived in India for years and was closely associated with Larson and Toubro, one of the major corporates in post-independence India. Mint spoke to Ishrat Kanga, Head of Sotheby’s London Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art Sale, about the paintings in the upcoming auction and the different collections they are drawn from. Edited excerpts:

Tell us about the Gunnar and Inger Hansen collection. Who and how did they build it? Why is it historically important for Indian art?

The Hansens totally immersed themselves in the Indian art world. They became friends with the great gallerists of their time such as Kali Pundole and Kekoo Gandhy, so much so that they were invited to all the opening shows of the exhibitions of artists, and were able to buy this wonderful selection of paintings before many other people were able to see them. It is not just the gallerists that they were friends with – they met the artists too at the private views, notably Ram Kumar, whose painting in the sale is illustrated in the catalogue with a letter from the artist.

The family own an array of pamphlets from gallery shows which Gunnar and Inger attended, but never ended up buying any paintings from – showing that they were actively learning about and discovering artists all the time, but that they were also selective, and carefully considered which art to buy before making any purchases. It was a collection which they very much built together for their family home, and with each other’s tastes in mind, but some works were their personal favourites. Gunnar for example especially loved the works of Nareen Nath, and the flower paintings by B. Prabha carry Inger’s name on the receipt.

Enclosure by Ram Kumar, from the Hansen collection.
Enclosure by Ram Kumar, from the Hansen collection.

Another secret to their success was their forward-looking vision – the art they were buying was, at the time, not yet in the mainstream in India. Even the likes of Ram Kumar and V.S. Gaitonde were still very much on the ascendency at the time the Hansens were buying. They really followed their heart. Theirs was a collection of mostly young, promising Indian modernist painters which they wanted to hang in their home of course, to live with, but also to support this rising generation. It is a real joy, now around half a century later to peel back the lid, and rediscover this art – all of it unpublished – with similarly same fresh eyes that Gunnar and Inger collected with many years ago.

What are the highlights of the upcoming auction apart from the Gunnar and Inger Hansen collection?

We are lucky to again be offering a stunning painting from the estate of Bhupen Khakhar. This work, which shows one of his dearest friends standing in front of an imagined Garden of Eden in front of Delhi’s Red Palace, hung in pride of place in the artist’s drawing room for the rest of his life. It is a real privilege to be able to bring it to the market for the very first time.

'Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort' by Bhupen Khakhar,
'Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort' by Bhupen Khakhar,

Alongside the Gaitonde from the Hansen collection, we are offering a second important work by the artist from the collection of George Butcher, a prominent British art critic for The Guardian and early supporter of the South Asian modern art scene. He spent two years in India, also befriending many artists, gallerists and critics, in much the same way the Hansens did. He was also one of the first writers to assert the unique and remarkable contribution of South Asian artists to a global form of modernism. Like the Hansen collection, this painting has perfect provenance.

Untitled by VS Gaitonde, 1954.
Untitled by VS Gaitonde, 1954.

Ultimately though, this sale has something for everyone. There are around 100 lots, estimates ranging from under £1,000 to over £1,000,000 by the leading modernists, rarer and lesser known artists that have been underrepresented in the past, as well as leading contemporary artists such as Raqib Shaw, Nalini Malani, Arpita Singh and Mithu Sen.

2020 marks the 25th year of the South Asian art auctions for Sotheby's. What kind of trends have you noticed over the years? What have been your learnings? Where does the market augur for the future?

When Sotheby’s held its first sale dedicated to South Asian art back in 1995 at Sotheby’s New York, M.F. Husain himself was sitting in the front row of the auction room to see one of his paintings set a new world record for his work at just under $50,000 (around 3.6 crores now). The world has come so far since then. The new world record set for any Indian artwork at auction by a Gaitonde earlier this month is a great moment for the entire market.

However, one of the most positive trends I have witnessed in recent years is the move for collectors to look beyond The Progressive Artists’ Group and to embrace new names. One small example of this is the keen reception we have so far received for the lesser-known artists in the Hansen collection. These are artists who have never been offered at auction at Sotheby’s before, but who are generating plenty of interest ahead of the sale - Nareen Nath, Triloke Kaul, Homi B. Patel and S.R. Bhusan. They have everything a collector looks for when buying art – fabulous provenance, a great colourful aesthetic, and attractive estimates.

In the future, I hope that the international profile of South Asian Art continues to grow as it has been in recent years, and that the global exchange of ideas and dialogue fostered by gallerists, art fairs, museums and auction houses sees more artists from the region be given an international platform. Last year at Sotheby’s, we set a new record price of $3.2 million for Bhupen Khakhar’s Two Men in Benares, which has since made its way on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) .

In 2019, we also achieved our highest annual total for Modern & Contemporary Art for five years and our highest levels of participation for a decade. Our most recent sale—held in New York in March 2020 just as the world was shutting down for coronavirus—saw over 90% of lots sold and our highest overall total in the city for three years, against all the odds. So, although 2020 isn’t the year that anyone expected it would be, we are going into this next auction from a very positive place.

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