India to auction fugitive billionaire's art collection

A staff member speaks on his phone as artworks, once part of billionaire jeweller Nirav Modi's collection, are seen on display ahead of their auction at a gallery in Mumbai March 25, 2019. — Reuters pic
A staff member speaks on his phone as artworks, once part of billionaire jeweller Nirav Modi's collection, are seen on display ahead of their auction at a gallery in Mumbai March 25, 2019. — Reuters pic

MUMBAI, March 26 — Indian tax authorities are hoping for a windfall with the auction today of rare oil paintings that were once part of fugitive billionaire jeweler Nirav Modi's collection and have been seized by the government.

Auctioneers say the sale is the first of its kind in a country where tax authorities have usually auctioned property, gold and luxury items, but not art.

After a court order allowing the auction to take place, tax authorities, who are pursuing Modi over the country's largest bank fraud, appointed professional auction house Saffronart.

The sale in Mumbai of some 68 works is expected to fetch anywhere between 300 million and 500 million rupees (RM17.6-29.3 million).

“Until a few years ago, the tax authorities really didn't know the value of art,” said Farah Siddiqui, an art adviser who is advising clients eyeing Modi's collection.

The 48-year-old Modi, whose diamonds have sparkled on Hollywood stars, is one of the prime accused in a $2 billion loan fraud at state-run Punjab National Bank. Modi denies the charges and believes they are politically motivated.

The auction comes just weeks before a national election and as Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi faces pressure to bring back Nirav Modi (no relation), who fled the country last year and has been residing in the United Kingdom.

He was arrested last week by British authorities and remanded in custody after he appeared before a London court. India asked Britain last August to extradite Modi.

The auction includes works by Raja Ravi Varma, a 19th century painter considered among India's finest, and VS Gaitonde, a modern artist known for his abstract and often monochromatic paintings.

"We believe that the collection's intrinsic value will garner a positive response from collectors," said Saffronart chief executive Dinesh Vazirani.

India Law Alliance, a law firm representing the company controlled by Modi that owns the artwork, said it was challenging the court order that allowed the auction. The case will be heard by the Bombay High Court on Wednesday, a lawyer at the firm told Reuters.

Vijay Aggarwal, a lawyer for Modi, declined to comment. — Reuters

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