As I walk up the steps of a five-star hotel in South Mumbai and turn left into the corridor, the clicking of my heels resonates with my heartbeat. The weight of the art catalogue for Osian’s Creative India Series 4 doubles in my arms, and a nervous tingle in my tummy sharpens in excitement. I am attending my first art auction, and scenes from numerous Bollywood films flash through my mind. The famous dialogue — ‘Ek lakh ek, ek lakh do, ek lakh teeeeen!’ (One lakh one, one lakh two, one lakh three) — ring in my ears. I open the gigantic door of the room, and catch a glimpse of myself in its ornate mirror-work. I and sigh in relief. My hair is behaving itself today.
Once in, I am transported into the world of art. Works by artists from Goa, South India and Cholamandal are leaning against the walls — I recognise an oil sketch by the famous European artist Henry Singleton — The Assault and Taking of Seringapatam, and a few works by KCS Paniker, FN Souza, Laxma Goud and J Sultan Ali from the catalogue.
The room is brightly lit, and art enthusiasts are scattered around high round tables, munching on wafers, whispering strategies to their partners. A few are at the counter collecting their paddles numbers, placards with which they will make their bids. In one corner, eight laptops and telephone lines are neatly placed on a long table. This is where the telephone bidders will be seated. They will be on the phone with their buyers all evening, advising them and making bids in their behalf.
Forty-nine year-old auctioneer Angira Arya announces in a crisp, seasoned tone that the auction is about to start and ‘buyers’ are requested to take a seat. I oblige. Dressed in a formal suit, a vibrant orange and blue tie, his six-foot tall frame commands the attention of this rich crowd. He reads out the rules and sets the pace for the evening’s biddings. The crowd is thin, the evening’s photographer tells me. “The Mantralaya fire has kept at least 15 to 20 probable buyers away,” he says.
The crowd quickly settles into a hushed silence and gets down to business. Without wasting much time, Arya explains the categories of buyers — buyers physically present in the room, buyers on the telephone lines, and buyers in the book with the auctioneer. They are the ones who have already submitted their bids. Arya will conduct every alternate bid on their behalf.
I spot a telephone bidder wiping beads of sweat off his brow. Why? It’s not even his money, I wonder, before realising that it is the adrenaline rush that is adding to the tension. Five minutes into the auction, Arya’s oratorical skills come to the fore. He develops a comfortable but clever relationship with the crowd, holding the attention of the bidders, gently coaxing them to try a higher bid with a remark, and at other times, with a long pause.
Lot 1, which consists of one or multiple works together put for sale, is a pair of carved Dwarpala (wooden carvings from the late 18th Century). A couple sitting in front of me casually raise their paddles, all the time what seems like whispering sweet nothings into each other’s ears. Arya doesn’t mind the disturbance, for they are deciding to bid higher.
He maintains eye contact, “Would you like to raise your bid, sir. The lot is still with my buyer in the book.” And they raise the bid by Rs 50,000 once again, and again. “Lot no 1, selling to the person on my right. A fair warning to all… and sold to the gentlemen on my right.” All this happens within a span of 30 seconds.
After 12 years and 120 auctions, Arya is able to read the faces of the buyers. He prolongs his pauses and keeps the crowd guessing as to why he isn’t closing the bid, but only he and the bidder sitting in the 13th row know that he is likely to raise the bid. “People who are not interested in the lot may get bored, but I’m here to sell, not entertain,” he tells me later.
For every lot, the gallery decides a reserve amount, below which a lot cannot be sold. For example, if the estimated price of an artwork is between Rs 3 and 6 lakh, the reserve will be approximately Rs 2.6 lakh, which only the buyer and seller are aware of. “I may start the bid at a price much lower than the reserve, just to build up momentum,” says Arya, who plays the neutral role of a mediator between the buyer and the seller in the bidding process.
While the two hours of an auction are the most important, the auction house begins preparing five months in advance. Their work involves finding rare works, mostly by deceased artists, whose works are not available in the market, ensuring they are original works and getting in touch with buyers.
Though I was all ears to Arya’s auctioneering, I couldn’t help eavesdropping on the conversation going on in the row ahead of me. “What have you bought so far?” queried a well-heeled woman, who joined a couple 15 minutes into the auction. “Oh, just a few things here and there,” they said, matter-of-factly. And, that, readers, is the size of an art buyer’s pocket.