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An eye for the antique

Patrick Bowring, a dealer in art, is graceful and witty in an almost Edwardian way, with a natural sense of the absurd. `Indians have never had a tradition that says they should value old pieces,' he told DOM MORAES.


Patrick Bowring inspecting one of a pair of Goan silver figures of herons made in the early 20th Century.

WHEN Patrick Bowring was slightly younger, the adjective for him might have been "debonair". He was graceful and witty in an almost Edwardian way, a handsome man with a natural sense of the absurd. Irish genes, inherited from his mother may have contributed to this side of his character. I have heard some of his colleagues irreverently refer to him as Paddy. But on the paternal side, the family owned an insurance company. At 51, he has three grown sons, and until recently lived mostly with them, his wife, a dog and a duck, in the English countryside. He now lives in a barsati in Delhi, with occasional visits home. He travels incessantly around India, and has grown graver than he was.

Bowring studied art history and has always been a dealer in art. He has now set up a company, Bowring Auctions, in this country. It is the first time such a company, owned by a foreigner, has been registered in India. The goods it deals with are mainly Indian painting and sculpture, but include antiques of various kinds. Some of these come under the category of national treasures and cannot travel abroad. But his company has a certain catalytic power. It introduces many young Indian artists to an international audience, and international prices.

"A gallery may buy paintings," Bowring said over lunch in Mumbai recently. "But obviously it buys paintings in order to sell them. It doesn't want to pay too much. We, on the other hand, take a percentage of the price of any piece we sell. The artist or collector, whoever gives us the piece to auction, is automatically assured that we will try for a better price. It's in our own interest. That's of course if the piece is sold. It may be that nobody wants it."

He described his successful trips to small towns where he has picked up valuable antiques. "It's only natural that these pieces — say, an old clock, an antique mirror — should lie around for years, forgotten in somebody's house. Indians have never had a tradition that told them they should value old pieces." This is quite true. Historic monuments here were allowed to disappear, neglected for hundreds of years, till the Germans or the British unearthed them in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. Even now, old temples and palaces are allowed to fall into ruin or, not infrequently, defaced by tasteless modern additions.

One of Bowring's major achievements in India may be to make people more aware of history, even if it is only through a realisation that some ancient objects have financial value. Old dak bungalows and resthouses are other places on which he will focus a highly trained eye. As a very young man, he applied to Sotheby's for a position. "They offered me positions in various departments, including Silver, but finally I was put into Art." One of his regrets is that he joined the firm too late to have known that marvellous writer Bruce Chatwin, who worked there for some years. Chatwin, however, hated Sotheby's; Bowring enjoyed the years he spent there, acquiring knowledge of his complicated trade.

It was through Sotheby's that he first came to India. "We had an auction on a Navy training ship, the `Jawahar', in Mumbai." This was how we had first met. I remembered the occasion. Pritish Nandy had previously held one in Victoria Terminus, and started a fashion in Mumbai for art auctions in unusual venues. A number of colourful characters turned up, including Mick Jagger's wife Bianca, who bought a lot. "That auction brought in 2 millions," Bowring recalled.

This made English auctioneers realise the potential market for Indian art. Bowring revisited India often and regularly. He made many friends, who included painters, critics, and writers, and considerably widened his knowledge of Indian art. During this period, Sotheby's set up offices in this country. But Bowring left their employment and went to Bonham's, another august firm of auctioneers.

He was there when I last met him, in London last winter. We had dinner with him at his club, the Oriental, a strange and wonderful place off Oxford Street. But he didn't mention that he intended to open an auction house of his own in India, though he must have been planning it for some time. He is not as free with words as his Irish blood might indicate. Few people knew of his new venture till he announced it at a press conference in Mumbai earlier this year.

Another aspect of his auctions, of which several are coming up around India, will be their entertainment value. An auction can be a remarkable spectacle, especially when the bids are high. A good auctioneer can rivet the attention of an audience like a Spanish matador, and with almost the same flamboyance. Bowring has very seldom done this himself, and now, as the head of what promises to be a very successful enterprise, he is unlikely to have time to spare. He will be too busy dealing with the other innumerable details.


"Dawn on the Beach", J.P. Gangooly, oil on canvas.

"The provenance of a piece is very important," he says. His firm had its first auction in Delhi last month, and a catalogue was printed. It then transpired that a painting by Hemendranath Mazumdar, which was reproduced in the catalogue, had been stolen, and there was a slight fuss about it. "Of course, it's all been sorted out now," said Bowring. "But, unfortunately, this kind of thing can happen. We have to be fantastically careful with things like that, and of course with the safety of the pieces we're selling. Everything has to be heavily insured."

"Do you insure it with your family's firm?" asked my companion.

Bowring laughed. "No. My father sold his company some years ago." Perhaps his father's line of business embarrassed him; for as he said this, I imagined that I saw the faintest flicker of relief cross his expressive face.

Dom Moraes' first book of poems won the Hawthornden Prize in 1958. He has since then published several collections of poems and books of prose which include biographies, travelogues and collections of reportage.

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