By: Sallie Brady
For 40 years London dealer Indar Pasricha has been collecting Indo-European furniture, a hybrid genre that was a byproduct of the spice trade that brought the Portuguese, and later the Dutch, French and English, to the Indian subcontinent and its island neighbor, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). “The ebony furniture, with its low-relief carving, looks extraordinary in a modern setting,” says Pasricha. “The Anglo-Indian ivory pieces mix well with 18th-century English and French furniture, and many of the Indo-Dutch pieces can stand anywhere on their own.” Amin Jaffer, Christie’s international director of Asian art, agrees. “These pieces are very integratable into today’s interiors,” says Jaffer, who is also the author of numerous books on India’s decorative arts, including the category’s definitive work, Furniture From British India and Ceylon (V&A Publications, 2001). “They continue to fit well into global, cosmopolitan living.” Unsurprisingly, prices for Indo-European furniture are on the rise.
When the Portuguese came ashore in India in the late 15th century, they found that daily life was not conducted on seat furniture but while reclining on piles of carpets or seated on the floor. Like the European rivals who would follow them, the Portuguese began commissioning chairs and armoires as well as table furnishings such as sewing boxes and writing slopes. Local craftsmen fashioned them from native ebony, sandalwood and rosewood. Shipboard furniture and imported pieces were also copied and embellished using traditional Indian techniques that had never before been applied to furniture decoration.
Between the 15th and 20th centuries three distinctive furniture styles developed on the Indian subcontinent to reflect the tastes of the ruling colonial powers: Indo-Portuguese, Indo-Dutch and Anglo-Indian. Later, the term “Indo-European” was coined to cover all styles of export furniture. The earliest was Indo-Portuguese, which is perhaps the most Eastern- or Indian-looking of the three. Furniture exported from these regions frequently was crafted of teak and rosewood and fitted with cane seats. The carvings often showcased the flora and fauna of Goa, where much of it was made. Table furniture and table cabinets, which were popular during the Indo-Portuguese period, are distinguishable by their spectacular inlay. Again, the patterns look Eastern, almost Islamic, created from bits of ivory, bone, mother-of-pearl, pewter and even porcupine quills. Some of the masterpieces sought by collectors today were made in the 16th and 17th centuries in the Gujarat and Sindh regions (now part of Pakistan), using sadeli, a micromosaic technique believed to have come from Persia.
Amir Mohtashemi, a London-based dealer of Indian and Islamic art, says that Indo-Portuguese furniture was greatly undervalued 10 to 15 years ago and the pieces are now “fought over in the salesrooms, with good table cabinets, particularly figurative ones, featuring Mughals or Portuguese, realizing £15,000–25,000 ($22,000–37,000).” At the 2009 edition of The European Fine Art Fair in Maastricht, Alexis Renard, a Paris dealer of Islamic and Indian art, offered an early Gujarat or Sindh sadeli drop-front cabinet inlaid with spherical geometric designs executed in wood, ivory and stained ivory for €95,000 ($123,000).
Less visible in the salesrooms but still available on the market are Indo-Dutch pieces. Frequently made on the Coromandel Coast from light-colored wood such as sandalwood and satinwood, the seated furniture and large cabinets can be strikingly modern. Patterns of inlaid and lacquered mahogany, ebony and other contrasting specimens might seem more early American than Eastern. Richly carved ebony pieces accented with Holland’s native tulip motif were considered Indo-Dutch and exported from India, although many were fashioned in Indonesia, the other Dutch colonial stronghold.
At the British Antique Dealers’ Association fair in March, furniture dealers Wakelin & Linfield, had four parties—all new collectors—interested in a large rosewood armoire inlaid with ebony and ivory from 1640 priced at £22,000 ($32,000), commissioned by the Dutch East India Company for export to a Dutch household. These commissions were typical of those assigned by European trading companies, who often didn’t have a specific buyer in mind but knew the taste of their home market.
But of all the colonial furniture made in India, it is the dramatic 18th- and 19th-century ivory pieces produced in the Anglo-Indian workshops of Vizagapatam that are most famous. (In fact, the coastal city gave its name to some of them.) These dazzlers were constructed according to traditional English Chippendale and Sheraton furniture patterns and were frequently hewn of solid ivory and decorated with paint or gilt. A fine example of the form, an 1830 paw-footed armchair, sold at Sotheby’s New York this past April for $44,000 against a $20,000–30,000 estimate. Other Anglo-Indian pieces were built from basic woods such as sandalwood, then veneered with ivory that might be engraved, inlaid, pierced or ornamented with penwork (a technique in which ink is applied to the ivory’s surface to mimic inlay). Breathtaking examples can be found in George III and Queen Charlotte’s collection in the Royal Collection of Britain; the Victoria & Albert Museum; Kedleston Hall, the ancestral home of Lord Curzon, the viceroy of India; and in the showrooms of English furniture dealers, who only wish they had more of them.
“They are starting to become one of the most difficult areas to acquire,” says Giles Hutchinson Smith, chief executive of Mallett, noting that more owners are holding onto their pieces. “There’s an extraordinary passion for collecting them.” Hutchinson Smith cites the 1750 Vizagapatam engraved ivory inlay padouk wood writing desk and dressing table that set a record for the Anglo-Indian category, fetching $828,000 against a $500,000–700,000 estimate, as part of the 2005 Lily and Edmond J. Safrasale at Sotheby’s New York. Lily Safra “bought it from us the year before and the increase in value was three times,” says Hutchinson Smith, adding that the Safra provenance explained the object’s performance at auction.
“The prices of exotic or important pieces have doubled in the last 15 years,” says Fred Imberman, copresident of Kentshire Galleries, the Manhattan-based dealer of English furniture that features Anglo-Indian pieces in its showrooms. Imberman notes the value of important penworked ivory pieces, such as the pair of 18th-century Vizagapatam chairs based on a Chippendale model that he’s selling for $375,000. “The prices tend to be strong because the materials tend to be strong—and sexy.”
With the exception of pieces made for the palaces of the maharajas who embraced Western influences, colonial furniture was created for export, and most left India with its colonists. Indeed, India is not the place to shop for export furniture. Any rare piece that might turn up is subject to a 1972 law preventing objects that are more than 100 years old from leaving the country. Surviving pieces are also likely to be in poor condition because the climate of tropical heat and monsoons tends to warp the inlay. The climate might explain why Indians, who in recent years have enthusiastically bid on Indian miniatures, silver, contemporary paintings and other national treasures have not been active buyers of the furnishings. “The only way this market will grow is if the Indians focused on it,” says Holly Brackenbury, deputy director of Sotheby’s Islamic and Indian department. “There just aren’t that many collectors in India of Anglo-Indian or Indo-Portuguese.”
Pasricha concurs. “Indians don’t have the tradition of buying antique furniture,” he says. “They need to start buying these treasures before they are lost.” Today collectors eagerly pursue all three furniture categories, but dealers and auction houses will confirm that Portuguese and Dutch collectors continue to seek out rare pieces from their colonial days, while Anglo-Indian furniture is favored by British and American buyers, and early mother-of-pearl table furniture work draws Japanese and Korean collectors, who see a stylistic and historical relation to their own traditions.
Collectors of Indian export furniture have learned they need to seriously surf auction listings to find treasures. A hybrid category that straddles the cultures of two continents doesn’t always make for the most straightforward of cataloguing. Anglo-Indian furniture reliably appears in English furniture sales, but pieces from the other two major categories require more digging in both European furniture and Islamic and Indian sales. Sotheby’s tucked a 16th-century inlaid Indo-Portuguese Gujarat cabinet in its April 2009 Fine European Furniture sale in New York, where it garnered $12,500 on a $6,000–9,000 estimate, while Christie’s placed several Indo-Portuguese pieces from Gujarat in its Art of the Islamic and Indian Worlds auction in London in March.
A trained eye and good luck might also lead to discoveries at country auctions: Pasricha found one of his most important pieces, a 1725 Anglo-Dutch roundback hardwood chair, which has twins in museums in Amsterdam and Jakarta, lurking in an auction in Berkshire, England, two years ago. It was completely miscatalogued as a 19th-century corner chair, he says, adding, “With something as recherché as this furniture, you find that the auction houses can get it wrong.”
Alexis Renard, Paris
Amir Mohtashemi, London
Carlton Hobbs, New York
Christie’s, New York and London
212.636.2000; 44.20.7839.9060 christies.com
Guinevere Antiques, London
Indar Pasricha Fine Arts, London
Kentshire Galleries, New York
Mallett, New York and London
212.249.8783; 44.20.7499.7411 mallettantiques.com
Sotheby’s, New York and London
800.813.5968; 800.813.5968 sothebys.com
Wakelin & Linfield, Billingshurst, West Sussex, England