On June 15, the auction hammer came down on Tyeb Mehta’s Kali, fetching a whopping Rs 26.4 crore and setting a new record for the late artist at the highly successful Saffronart’s Milestone 200th Auction. The painting, featuring a blue Kali with a red mouth and a figure of the asura protruding out of her back, belonged to the storied Alkazi Collection.

In 2005, when the great artist was alive, I had gone to visit him at his studio in Lokhandwala, Mumbai. His painting Mahishasura – a modern reinterpretation of the slaying of the demon by Hindu Goddess Durga – had sold at $1.58 million at Christie’s earlier that year. And two years before that, his triptych Celebration sold for $317,500, also at a Christie’s auction. Not only was this the highest sum for an Indian painting at an international auction at the time, but it paved the way for the Indian art boom.

Mehta was not watching the market, though. The legend was part of the Progressive Artists’ Group which was at the vanguard of Indian Modernism, but in contrast to the maverick MF Husain and verbose FN Souza, Mehta was quiet and simple.

When I met him, he was wearing a khadi kurta, with large spectacles perched on his nose. An acute heart condition had left him with only 30% heart function. He moved slowly around his studio and worked in complete silence. Finally, Mehta realised that I expected him to say something about his great triumph at the auction. “It is wonderful to be appreciated by the art market, in my lifetime,” he said. “My work has sold at [the] auction and this is a great honour.”

Ironically though, Mehta did not benefit monetarily from it. Two years later he died of a heart attack, aged 82. The artist will always be known as a gentle soul, who painted for the disenfranchised and the marginalised, with a purity and vigour that was reflected in his simple lifestyle. He lived quietly with his wife Sakina, their son, Yusuf, and daughter, Himani.

The art community – especially his gallery in Mumbai, Chemould – supported him with exhibitions and primary sales, but in retrospect, if Mehta had received a royalty from the sales of his work at auctions, it could have certainly helped him afford better healthcare.

Tyeb Mehta's painting Mahishasura (centre) sold for $1.58 million at Christie’s in 2015. Photo credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

Mehta is not a lone example. Many artists are in dire need, with marginal funds to fall back on when their health fails them. Sadanand Bakre, who was part of the Progressive Artists’ Group, like Mehta, was lying in a hospital bed with a gangrenous leg, with no-one but his adopted son Milind Limbekar to take care of him. He died in 2007 with his estate still under dispute.

Opposing sides

The point is, artists rarely benefit from the full value of their artworks. This is because of the great disparity between the price that the work first sold at, and the price it gets auctioned at several years later. This disparity arises because unlike creative creators such as musicians or writers, the artist’s reward from an artwork is generally limited to the first sale. Since many of these works were sold 30 to 50 years ago, the collectors and market intermediaries paid a relatively low price for them.

It was driven by these sentiments that the concept of royalty first originated in France in 1920 under droit de suite (right of continuation), stemming from the concern over the financial plight of the widow of Impressionist painter Jean-François Millet. Millet, whose work lionised the proletariat, died in penury in Barbizon in 1875, while his 1858 painting The Angelus resold for 800,000 gold francs.

Supporters of royalty schemes argue that a stake in the proceeds from later sales gives artists a fairer reward and encouragement to continue their work. “People like Tyeb have really suffered ill health and have lived so simply,” said senior artist Anjolie Ela Menon. “At least his family could have benefited from royalties to his work.”

A young Tyeb Mehta.

Stacked against this is the capitalist point of view, which says that an investor takes a risk when pouring money into an artwork when its value is relatively low. When its price rises due to various factors like rarity, historicity and the growth of the artist’s oeuvre, the investor reaps a benefit that is due to him by all fair means.

“The collector paid the full market price of the painting at the time and has complete ownership of the work, so why pay more?” asked Dinesh Vazirani, CEO, Saffronart. Vazirani points out that while it is virtuous if the artist benefits from a royalty scheme, it is often difficult to implement. “There have been many cases, in Europe, where there is a contestation of who should get the royalty: the estate of the deceased artist or his immediate relatives.” Some cases that have stretched on for years often act as an impediment for primary sales.

Dinesh Vazirani says it is difficult to implement a royalty scheme for artists.

This market analysis leaves out the morality issue. Operative in most European Union countries including Britain, and in Australia – where the government has run a 5% royalty scheme since 2010 – royalty is seen as an expression of the artist’s “moral rights” in the created product. In this view, a royalty on later re-sales simply reflects the increased value that was always inherent in the work. As this is said to be attributable to the artist’s act of creation, and their efforts in establishing their reputation, it is argued that the artist should have the right to participate in the proceeds of those sales.

A group of concerned painters under the name, Delhi Arts, is in the process of filing a petition to the Union Ministry of Culture to make provisions and entitlement of royalty for artists. “The onus of providing royalty to artists lies with the government,” said Kaustab Nag, a young contemporary artist and member of the Delhi Arts. “Naturally private collectors and auction houses would not want to bear the brunt of the royalty fee.”

Shireen Gandhy, director, Gallery Chemould, believes that adding another tax onto the purchase of a painting may discourage buyers and affect the sales of contemporary art in the market. “While I agree with royalty for artists in principle, I am not sure how it will be implemented,” she said. “It is already very difficult to sell art, what with capital sales tax and income tax, GST…I think that it may upset an already delicate balance.” She is also highly sceptical that a petition filed by artists will even be acknowledged by the Indian government, let alone acted upon.

World of aesthetics

Another argument made by free market proponents is that this scheme is skewed in favour of successful artists, like Picasso and Matisse (the Indian equivalent would be a VS Gaitonde or SH Raza), whose descendants are said to have received about 70% of the royalties that have been collected. This view can, however, be disingenuous: by favouring highly successful artists, the scheme reflects merely market forces. If one were to draw analogies with authors, it is understood that a hugely successful author will make more out of royalties by selling millions of copies of their book, as opposed to a struggling author whose book has a print run of 300 books. Does this argument indicate that one should do away with royalty schemes altogether?

Gandhy nevertheless argues that the book market is different, where 300 copies do not translate into lakhs of rupees. “I’m not sure if we can compare the two,” she said.

Senior artist Krishen Khanna believes that a painter should concentrate on his art rather than run to court. “If a collector gives a sum [to the artist], out of the goodness of their heart when they receive high returns at the auctions, that is a different thing,” he said. “But I would rather not demean myself by chasing after it.”

Artist Akbar Padamsee agrees – “Artists paint. They are involved in the world of aesthetics. The onus of collecting royalty should not lie with them. There must be a system in place to ensure that their life’s work is respected, and their heirs get their dues. In the absence of heirs, it should go to the estate of the artist.”

Even if artists shy away from demanding royalty, perhaps the government could help, giving them the dignified existence that they all deserve.