By Frank Jack Daniel
NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Christie's will hold its debut art auction in India later this month, hot on the heels of its first major sale in China, as it seeks to tap into Asian buyers' growing importance in the global art marketplace.
The auction, to be held in Mumbai on December 19, showcases Indian modern masters such as M. F. Husain and includes works considered national treasures by Rabindranath Tagore and Amrita Sher-Gil as well as some contemporary pieces.
The highlights of the auction include Tyeb Mehta's bold "Mahishasura", a painting of the goddess Durga battling a buffalo demon, which has a target price of between $1.2 and $1.8 million.
India's art market has been something of a roller-coaster in recent years, with valuations of contemporary artists sky-rocketing during a pre-financial crisis boom before coming back down with a bump.
Indian modern paintings have held up better, helped by a growing clutch of Indian collectors snapping up works from overseas auctions. A November report by art market analysts Art Tactic said confidence in Indian modern art was on the rise.
Much like China a few years ago, Indian collectors are largely interested in homegrown work from dead modern masters, whose valuations are seen as likely to increase.
"You begin to see the telltale signs, when is it right to come into a market," said Paul Hewitt, who heads Christie's Growth Markets division.
"Strategically it is the elephant in the room, so we should be here. We've made significant progress in China over the last year so (we were) almost conspicuous by our absence of doing something in India," Hewitt said.
In September, Christie's sold $25 million worth of art, jewellery, watches and wine at its first auction in China.
Christie's aims to sell art worth between $6 million and $8 million at the Mumbai auction, mainly pieces from a private collection by gallery owner Kekoo Gandhy, who died last year.
"I hope we can handsomely exceed the high estimate," said Hugo Weihe, Christie's international director of Asian Art.
(Editing by Mike Collett-White)