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Indian masterpieces by some of the most important modern artists up for sale in New York
A pair of bronze models of Samurai by Yoshimitsu from late 19th century are seen on display at the Bonhams auction house in New York on September 15, 2014 . AFP PHOTO/Jewel Samad.

By: Jennie Matthew

NEW YORK (AFP).- Paintings by one of India's most important modern artists go under the hammer in New York on Wednesday, highlights in a booming market for Asian art featured this week.

Three oils on canvas by pioneering Indian abstract artist Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde, who in 1964 based himself in New York, are being offered for auction by Christie's and Bonham's.

Bonham's canvases, signed and dated 1961 and 1963, come from the artist's "non-objective" series and were acquired by US artist Morris Graves, who described him as "fine -- or superb -- as Mark Rothko at his best."

The auction house values the oil paintings, which have spent 45 years with a San Francisco collector, at $300-500,000 and $600-800,000 respectively.

Christie's is offering a 1971 publicly known painting "Untitled" in moss green for $750,000 to $900,000, which it says showcases the "painter, philosopher and alchemist at the zenith of his career."

Gaitonde's prices don't yet compare to the stratospheric ones fetched for Western art, but experts say he is poised to join the international modern art canon, and that there is a robust, emerging market in modern Indian art.

The Guggenheim in New York on October 24 opens the first museum exhibition dedicated to the famously reclusive artist, and Gaitonde work has recently set records in the Asian art world.

In 2012 Christie's set a world record for a modern Indian painting by selling a canvas for $3.79 million. In March, Sotheby's sold another Gaitonde for $2.5 million.

Bonham's three-year-old department of Indian, Himalayan and South Asian art, a minnow compared to powerhouses Christie's and Sotheby's, has billed Wednesday's sale as a real coup.

"It couldn't be a better time to offer these," Mark Rasmussen, Bonham's junior specialist, told AFP.

He regards Gaitonde as the most sought-after modern Indian painter, and said he expected bids from collectors as well as international institutions.

Poetry on canvas
Born in Nagpur, India in 1924, Gaitonde was inspired early on by Swiss artist Paul Klee, then turned towards abstraction and cultivated a lifelong interest in Zen Buddhism.

He studied in Bombay and in 1964 lived at New York's Chelsea Hotel, then a cultural hub that housed Bob Dylan, Arthur Miller and Leonard Cohen.

Deepanjana Klein, head of South Asian modern and contemporary art at Christie's, called Gaitonde's work "poetry on canvas."

"There is only a finite body of great work and collectors know that. When they see something great they will come and get it," she told AFP

The last decade has seen an astonishing explosion in the global market for Asian art, fueled by new, cash-rich wealth in China but in which European and US collectors have kept pace.

Catching up with Western prices
Jonathan Stone, head of Asian art at Christie's and based in Hong Kong, told AFP that the growth was so fast that Asian art prices are starting to catch up with Western art.

"Chinese art has taken a lot of the headlines, but the interest in Southeast Asian art has grown considerably, and I know there has been a significant growth in the Indian contemporary and modern market," he said.

Christie's had an inaugural sale in Mumbai last year and is setting up in Shanghai to capitalize on new clients, but Stone says none of that detracts from Asian sales week in New York.

"New York remains almost unique in the way we're able to offer such a range of Asian art across all cultures and all epochs," he said.

Christie's hopes to make $26 million from Asian art this week, and Sotheby's a whopping $42.5 to $58 million, bolstered by Chinese ceramics and classical painting and calligraphy.

Bonhams' upper estimate for its Chinese, Indian and Japanese art sales is $10 million.

Bruce MacLaren, a Chinese art specialist at Bonhams, said some artists are selling for at least 10 times what they were selling for 10 years ago.

Chinese imperial, 18th, 19th and 20th century art does well, and buyers from mainland China really command the market, he said.

"They're absolutely transforming the way the market is behaving," he told AFP.

© 1994-2014 Agence France-Presse

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