Ishrat Kanga, Sotheby’s Head of Sale–London, Indian & South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art Auctions, brings unparalleled vision and in-depth knowedge about art and its provenance to the light. The only Indian and female auctioneer at International Auction Houses, Ishrat enjoys every minute of a nerve wrecking auction. She played instrumental role in curating what is known as one of the mjost significant auction of its kind ever, ‘‘Coups deCoeur’’. We get in a candid conversation with Ishrat to know more about her journey, tricks of the trade, views on Indian artists, and more. Edited excerpts..

You are the only Indian and female auctioneer at International Auction Houses. Does it intimidate you at any point of time?

I was very nervous the first time I conducted a live sale, and still continue to feel nervous before an auction, but it is never intimidating. We go through careful and rigorous training that equips us to deal with all situations and the nerves are due to wanting to conduct a strong, seamless and successful sale.

When and how did you get interested in art?

My grandfather was a collector who was a regular at galleries and international auctions. He often took me to artists’ studios and encouraged me to talk about what I liked and didn’t. I grew up around art, but I never pursued it as a career until college, when I took an ‘‘Introduction to Modern Art Course’’ and after the first one and a half hours, I was hooked.

Auctioneer is indeed an unconventional career choice. What made you go for it?

I only became an auctioneer in 2017, seven years after joining Sotheby’s. Most auctioneers like me begin by pursuing a career path at auction such as training to be a specialist and we spend years studying and learning about a particular type of art or specific art historical movements. After learning the ins and outs of putting together a sale, I decided to train as an auctioneer to conduct South Asian Art auctions. I told myself I would try it and thankfully the feedback I got was positive and encouraging which is why I continued to conduct sales.

The recent auction titled ‘‘Coups de Coeur’’ in London came to Sotheby’s after 25 years. How did you prepare yourself? Give us an insight into your curation process?

I prepared for the auction by studying each lot and practising to conduct the sale in a mock setting. ‘‘Coups de Coeur’’ was a single owner collection, curated and passionately put together by one couple. 

How do you put together an auction from scratch? Where do you source pieces from?

We start by discussing key works of art or artists that we would like to see represented in the sale, and share our hopes for the sale with the collectors we know best. There are also wonderful surprises when people we haven’t met before contact us with fantastic artworks for sale. We conduct free valuations for auction estimates and sometimes people are surprised by how valuable their art is and agree to offer their works in the next auction.

Do you think expertise in art and understanding the buyer’s mentality are the prerequisites of a proficient auctioneer? Are these skills related?

Yes, expertise in art and knowing the bidders in the auction room are key to being a proficient auctioneer.

If you have to pick a favourite artist, who would it be and why?

I have many favourite South Asian artists and it is impossible to pick only one. The Bombay Progressives, namely Maqbool Fida Husain and Francis Newton Souza are some of my personal favourites. If I had to single out one every artist, it would be EdouardManet. He was the first artist I formally studied, and he is considered to be one of the earliest modernist painters. My favourite movement in art history is modernism and learning about him and his work is what led me to pursue art as a career.

In your opinion, where do Indian artists stand in the world of art auction? Are the recognition and demand tilted towards veterans such as Bhupen Khakhar, Maqbool Fida Husain, and not the contemporary Indian artists?

The modernist artists named above are sold in specialised South Asian Art sales and contemporary Indian artists are sold in South Asian auctions and global Contemporary Art auctions. Anish Kapoor and Raqib Shaw for example, are represented in both these sales. Recognition and demand are steadily rising and there is a lot of scope for Indian art to grow even further.

How do you keep a tab on new and emerging collectors worldwide to build your clientele?

We try and attend as many gallery openings, studio visits, biennales and art fairs around the world to meet new collectors and continue expanding our understanding and appreciation of art. Attending different types of art events is the best way to build clientele.

Do you think art rises above money or its value takes a nosedive?

Art should be purchased out of passion. If you love what is on your wall, the money you spent is an investment in the joy it brings.

What next does the house of Sotheby’s have in store for art aficionados?

Sotheby’s is always going to strive to offer strong and exciting art at auction. As specialists, we are driven to discover hidden gems and works public in decades or centuries. Our galleries and exhibitions are open to the public, one needs only to step in and see what is in store.

Shivpriya Bajpai

Shivpriya Bajpai is the Assistant Editor at L’Officiel India. She loves to hoard sneakers and can intrigue you with her perpetually curious mind.