Exploring Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art at Bonhams with Priya Singh

Priya Singh is a Specialist at Bonhams' Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art department. Prior to joining Bonhams in 2020, Singh made her auction world debut at Sotheby's. There, she worked across numerous departments as both specialist and support before landing in compliance, where she spent two years learning the ins and out of the auction world.

At Bonhams, Singh initially worked in the Islamic and Indian department where she worked with objects such as Mughal jewels, swords and khanjars before transitioning to the Modern and Contemporary South Asian department.

This November's Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art auction comprised all from a charity auction raising money for "Friendship," Bangladesh's second largest charity, a non-selling exhibition celebrating the birth of Pakistan's greatest female artist Zubeida Agha, an exhibition of works by Irfan Cheema and a 114-lot sale featuring works by Maqbool Fida Husain, Sayed Haider Raza and Jamini Roy. Singh walks us through this season's auction at one of the world's most renowned auction houses, along with the variegated processes involved in organising a sale of such magnitude. 

Madhvi Parekh (Indian, B. 1942), Last Supper. 

SHREYA AJMANI Could you elaborate on your role as Specialist for Bonhams’ Modern & Contemporary South Asian Art department?

PRIYA SINGH Being a specialist is incredibly enjoyable. You come across magnificent art from the region all the time. I receive emails and calls from potential clients on most days, where they want their works or in some cases their collections, valued. I get to research works, look for historical examples of what past works have sold for and in many cases get to give artists their auction debuts. At other times, I am visiting clients or artists in their studios and getting to learn about their work.

Zubeida Agha (Pakistani, 1922-1997), Untitled (Self-portrait). 

SA How are South Asian art auctions received in the United Kingdom in comparison to South Asian nations?

PS The world is more interconnected than ever before. Our auctions are received well globally, and in fact, a lot of our clients are based in South Asian nations. Each auction is unique and we never quite know what we will have in each one. It’s like a chocolate box! You never know which chocolate, or in this case, artist and even artwork you’ll get. I think that’s what makes auctions exciting, and what makes them well-received worldwide. 

Sadanand K. Bakre (Indian, 1920-2007), Landscape. 

SA What does the November 22, 2022 auction offer in terms of artists and pieces?

PS We have something for everyone. We have the masters, Husain, Raza, Souza, Naqsh, and Parvez. We also have contemporary artists like Dushyant Patel, Bishwajit Goswami, and Deva Sharma. We have prints, canvases, objects such as a Husain clay plate, books on the Thar Desert and Sadequain’s Holy Sinner. For the cricket aficionados out there, we have an incredibly rare cricket bat painted by India’s beloved, and highest-selling artist at India Art Fair this year, Seema Kohli. The bat is from her collection and is a stellar example of the worlds of popular culture and art colliding in the best possible ways.

Irfan Cheema (Pakistani, B.1975), Still life with Oranges & Kashmir Shawl II. 

SA How do you prepare before every auction?

PS Every auction is different, and yet the process is fairly similar. We hope that the auctions that have gone beforehand encourage people to get their works valued and sold, and then we send out consignment emails as well. Before the actual auction, it is very much a waiting game, as we don’t know where or when people will bid. A lot of it comes down to the wire with people bidding on the day as the sale is going on, and even registering last minute. However, in the month leading up to the auction, once the auction has been published, we follow up with our clients to inform them of the auction, the time of the viewings etc, but we also work behind the scenes to design the layout of the view, ensure our marketing material is up to date and that we have the right press releases in the right outlets.

Ahmed Parvez (Pakistani, 1926-1979), Untitled (Vase). 

SA What is the biggest challenge and joy of auctioneering?

PS The biggest challenge and joy are the same. It’s not knowing what is going to happen. With the ubiquity of the internet, and the various ways, clients can now bid; phone, absentee bids, via the app, through our partner websites, the Saleroom and Invaluable, it’s such a guessing game. One has an idea of which works are strong and which ones can sell, but on the day you never know who's watching/ turns up to bid last minute to turn the tables. That’s what keeps the entire process so fascinating. It’s a joy because you don’t know what's going to happen until the moment we land on the work, but it's also a challenge as it's nerve-wracking.

Md Tokon (American-Bangladeshi, B.1980), Moonlight Lilies. 

SA How has your experience cultivating this auction been?

PS This auction is close to my heart because we have all but thrown the kitchen sink at it. We have one main auction, we have a charity auction, we have a non-selling exhibition and a selling exhibition. The latter two are new experiences as this is not something we have done before. We are celebrating the birth centenary of Zubeida Agha, arguably Pakistan’s greatest artist, with a non-selling exhibition of 10 works, and yet two of those are for sale, and are included in the auction. At the same time, we are having a selling exhibition for Irfan Cheema, whose works are breathtaking. In the main auction, we have this incredibly large Husain, which is an absolute treat, but we also have one of Bangladesh’s most important painters making his debut, Quamrul Hasan. We also have multiple artists making their debut. Murtaza Pardais’ works are stunning, and it's been such a pleasure spending time with his works. It’s been such a treat working with the artists and their works for this auction and indeed this auction season. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

All images courtesy of Bonhams.


December 1, 2022

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