It is often said the three ‘Ds’ – death, divorce and debt – are the main reasons art collections get consigned to auction.
But another ‘D’ – discretion – was seemingly why New York dealer Carlton C Rochell, Jr chose to sell a select group of 29 Company School pictures in a dedicated auction at Sotheby’s (25/20/13.9% buyer’s premium, plus 1% overhead premium). He could hardly have picked a better time.
This sub-sector of the art market, comprising works by Indian artists commissioned by East India Company (EIC) officials in the 18th and 19th centuries, has been gaining notable attention of late.
Prices have grown significantly with the advent of online searching and internet bidding making them more accessible to Indian buyers. Some of the best examples sold at auction over 20 years ago can now make vastly higher sums – a notable development especially in, what is in effect, the traditional watercolours market.
As well as the expanding financial clout of Indian buyers, another reason for the higher demand is the greater appreciation that has developed in both the East and West in what was previously a fairly niche field.
Sotheby’s head of sale Benedict Carter told ATG: “For much of the 20th century, Company School painting was rather overlooked and often seen as more ‘British’ than Indian. However, the best of this genre of painting, particularly the great series of the Impey and Fraser ‘albums’, are now being seen as fine examples of late Indian painting.”
He pointed to recent exhibitions such as The Forgotten Masters at the Wallace Collection in 2019-20 as doing much to promote the individual artists (where they are known), rather than emphasising only their patrons.
“This new perspective is reflected in the higher prices that have been achieved over the past decade for the best of these paintings”, said Carter. “There are certainly new buyers, from India and also from the Middle East, Europe and the US.
“As the number of readily available pictures in private hands slowly shrinks, I believe the prices will remain high as the demand will eventually outstrip the supply.”
The Wallace Collection show, which focused on Indian paintings produced for the EIC, was curated by the well-known writer and historian William Dalrymple. It underlined how these naturalistic studies linked Indian artistic traditions and European working methods.
The exhibition also introduced the British public to some of the finest Indian painters working on paper during the late Mughal period such as Shaykh Zayn al-Din, Ram Das, Bhawani Das and Ghulam Ali Khan – all of whom were represented in the Sotheby’s auction.
Together the works demonstrated how the acute observation and attention to detail derived from Mughal miniature painting fused with a new scientific approach to natural history that emanated from the West.
Prior to the sale Carter spoke of how the “remarkable hybrid style merging Mughal and European elements” was “finally receiving the full attention it deserves”, while Dalrymple, who wrote the foreword to the Sotheby’s catalogue, said it was “a genre that is only now beginning to receive its full credit”.
Titled In an Indian Garden, it was in fact the first dedicated Company School sale held by Sotheby’s. Around half of the works depicted birds with others focusing on other animals, flora, human figures and the architecture of the Indian subcontinent.
Of the 29 lots offered, 20 sold (69%) for a premium-inclusive total of £3.02m, and a new benchmark was set in terms of prices for these works at auction. Carter said the bidders came from the UK, Europe, the US, the Middle East and India, with a significant number of buyers new to the category.
The winning bidders were a mix of museums and private collectors, he said, although no details were available on the buyers of individual lots. As the consignment came from the US, those based outside the UK had an advantage of paying a reduced rate of VAT, assuming the works were re-exported.
When asked why it was decided to stage the auction in London, Carter said: “London has been the selling location of all our major single-owner collections in this category going back decades, from the The Bachofen von Echt Collection of Indian Painting (1992) to, more recently, the Stuart Cary Welch Collection (2011), The Sven Gahlin Collection (2015), The Khosrovani-Diba Collection (2016), The Howard Hodgkin Collection (2017) and now In an Indian Garden.
“Additionally we felt London was the right place to sell a collection of painting which has a quintessentially British connection, especially in the wake of The Forgotten Masters.”
Rochell himself is well known to Sotheby’s. He spent the first 18 years of his career at the auction house where he founded the Indian and south-east Asian art department in 1988.
He later served as managing director of Sotheby’s Asia and joined the firm’s board of directors before leaving to start out as a dealer and opening his own New York gallery in 2002.
Rochell said: “I first began to collect these lesser-known masterpieces over two decades ago simply for my personal enjoyment, my imagination having been captured by their ‘East meets West’ aesthetic.
“When they were painted, these works were the principal way in which India could be revealed to those in Great Britain who otherwise could only hear stories about this sumptuous land.
“Many years on, as they are beginning to take their rightful place in the art world, these pieces can now inspire a new generation of collectors who I hope will cherish them as I have.”
Famous fruit bat
While most of the 29 lots from the Rochell collection at Sotheby’s had never been on public view before, seven of the works had featured in The Forgotten Masters.
These included the famous picture of a great Indian fruit bat (or ‘flying fox’), a remarkable creature with a 1.5m wingspan.
Dating from c. 1778-82, it is signed by Bhawani Das, the Indian master from Calcutta best known for his studies of the species (another example of a similar work by the artist can be found in The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York).
As with some of the other valuable works in the Rochell collection, this 18in x 2ft 3in (45 x 69cm) pen, ink and watercolour came from the albums commissioned by the EIC’s chief justice Sir Elijah Impey and his wife Mary.
The couple kept a menagerie of animals in their gardens in Calcutta and hired local artists to paint a total of 326 studies to record them between 1777-83 – over half of which depicted birds.
After the Impeys brought back their extensive collection to England, the albums were broken up when they sold at auction in London in 1810. Several studies are now held in international institutions including the Met in New York and the V&A in London. Today works from the Impey album have major commercial appeal and lead the market for Company School paintings.
This fruit bat picture was well known to the market having appeared twice at auction in the last 13 years – first at Christie’s in May 2008 where it took £168,500 including premium, then at Bonhams in April 2014 where it made £458,500. In between it was owned by the Qatari prince and collector Sheikh Saud bin Muhammad Al Thani.
Here it was estimated at £300,000-500,000 and broke its own record in terms of the highest price for any Company School painting when it was knocked down at £520,000. With premium added, the price was £644,200 – a significant increase on the 2014 sum and, when considered alongside the 2008 result, underlining the market shift over the last two decades.
Following close behind was another highly recognisable work by another Calcutta artist and also originally from the Impey Album.
The watercolour of a Malabar giant squirrel shown eating almonds in a tree dated from 1778 and was signed by Shaykh Zayn al-Din, a painter originally from Patna who was employed by the Impeys. Prior to being acquired by Rochell, the 2ft 1in x 3ft 1in (64 x 94cm) pen, ink and watercolour had been in a private Swiss collection.
With exquisite colouring of the squirrel’s multicoloured fur as well as the precise details to the green leaves, it was highly admired at the viewing and drew good interest against a £200,000-300,000 estimate before it was knocked down at £500,000. The results for these two works effectively took the market for such works to a new level.
The performance of another major lot, another ornithological highlight, was slightly more muted but still posted a major price. The watercolour of a painted stork eating a snail, another picture from the Impey Album by Shaykh Zayn al-Din, was estimated at £200,000-300,000 and sold at £310,000.
Again it made a reasonable return on the £245,000 (including premium) it had fetched at Sotheby’s sale of The Khosrovani-Diba collection in October 2016.
A couple of non-bird pictures were also among the lots bringing decent bidding. One was a large gouache panorama of Alwar in Rajasthan – a view dominated by the white marble and red sandstone cenotaph of Raja Bakhtawar Singh. The 2ft 4in x 4ft (71cm x 1.23m) work on paper from c.1820 was attributed to Ghulam ‘Ali Khan, a Company School artist from either Delhi or Alwar.
Estimated at £80,000-120,000, it sold at £160,000 – on this occasion not too far removed from its last auction appearance when it sold for £149,000 including premium at Sotheby’s sale of the Sven Gahlin collection in October 2015.
The other was the single work in the sale by a Western artist: The Palace of Rohtas Garh by William Daniell (1769-1837).
The artist was born in Kingston upon Thames, Surrey, and became an assistant to his uncle, the landscape painter Thomas Daniell (1749-1840), following the early death of his father. Aged 16, he accompanied his uncle to India to work on producing a series of prints. He remained there for 10 years until returning to England in 1794.
The sets of aquatints they produced on their return, published as a volume titled Oriental Scenery, were a great success as the British public lapped up these atmospheric views of the scenery and architecture of the subcontinent.
His most famous and most commercial works are those depicting Indian scenes and this 21in x 2ft 6in (54 x 76cm) signed pencil and watercolour showing the palace near the Sone river in Bihar was probably produced on his first trip to the subcontinent. It was deemed a fine composition thanks to its sense of depth and perspective.
Estimated at £60,000-80,000, it was taken up to a final £240,000 – a record for a watercolour by the artist and the highest sum for any work by Daniell in the last five years.