Sotheby’s Tagore auction causes controversy in India

Sotheby’s announcement of the sale of a group of exceptionally rare works by the celebrated Bengali artist and poet, Rabindranath Tagore has caused consernation in the Indian government. West Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee has reputedly sent a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, urging him to stop the auction of rare paintings by the poet laureate before they go under the hammer at Sotheby’s in London next month.

“It has recently come to my notice that Tagore’s paintings presented to Leonard Elmhirst by the poet has been planned to be put on auction by Southeby’s at London. This news has deeply disturbed us. These Elmhirst collections of Gurudev’s paintings are priceless treasures of Indian culture and the government should take steps to bring these paintings back,” Bhattacharjee wrote to Singh, urging him to take appropriate action in the matter.

The 12 paintings presented for sale have a pre-sale combined estimate in the region of £250,000, and among the more noteworthy highlights of the group are:

• An Untitled portrait of a woman, undertaken in watercolour, coloured ink and pastel and estimated at £25,000-30,000.

• An Untitled work in ink depicting a lady with a fan, estimated at £20,000-30,000.

• An Untitled depiction of a figure in black with a bare arm and a green background, estimated at £30,000-40,000. This work is known to have entered the collection at Dartington Hall in the 1930’s.

• An Untitled landscape in yellow, black, blue and green, estimated at £15,000-20,000.

• An Untitled figure in yellow with a black background, estimated at £30,000-40,000.

• An Untitled work in coloured inks depicting figures in sepia, estimated at £20,000-30,000.

Talking about the paintings, Holly Brackenbury, Deputy Director in Indian Art at Sotheby’s comments: “It is very exciting to have the privilege of bringing these 12 museum-quality paintings by one of the key Modern masters of Indian painting to auction this summer. Together they form a stand-out group, and all have impeccable provenance having been in the collection at Dartington Hall for most of their life. Given this exemplary history and also Tagore’s status as one of India’s heritage artists, the sale of these paintings really does present collectors with an exceptionally rare, once-in-a-generation acquisition opportunity.”

Sotheby’s has a successful history of selling works by Tagore. In May 2008, it had set an auction record for a composition, “Death Scene” from the collection of W.G and M. Archer, that sold for 144,550 pounds.

The top prices for Tagore’s art at Sotheby’s include a composition “Bird” that sold at Sotheby’s London for 70,000 pounds, “Head of a Woman” that sold at Sotheby’s New York sale at £104,500 in September 2008 and another at £55,000 in September 2007.

(Image used is by Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941), Untitled (Figures in Sepia). Photo: Sotheby’s.)

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