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Raja Ravi Varma’s Painting Sold for $795,000 in NY Sotheby’s Auction

Self Portrait by Raja Ravi Varma

Nineteenth century Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma’s painting Tilottoma fetched Rs 5 crore at Sotheby’s Modern and Contemporary South Asian art auction in New York City on March 19.

The seller’s estimate was between $400,000 and $600,000 but the painting sold for $795,000. It was bought by an anonymous private collector, according to a Livemint report.

The painting, called Untitled (Tilottama), portrays one of the apsaras (celestial nymphs) from Hindu mythology partly dressed in a red sari. In the epic Mahabharata, Tilottama was created at Brahma’s request by using the best possible assets to create an almost perfect being. Her purpose was to bring about the destruction of two asuras (demons) named Sunda and Upasunda who were brothers and could not be destroyed by anyone except themselves.

The 20×13 and a quarter-inch oil-on-canvas masterpiece was created by Ravi Varma around 1896. His signature and the date (almost faded) are visible on the lower left side of the painting. This painting was inspired by William Adolphe Bouguereau’s (1825-1905) Birth of Venus, according to the auction house.

Tilottama. Photo: Wellcome Library, London.

The sale of Varma’s Tilottama did not break his previous records. His Untitled (Damayanti) sold for $1.2 million in March 2017 while in November, 2016, Varma’s work Radha in the Moonlight sold for Rs. 23 crore at the Pundole’s auction.

Since 1979, when the Indian government declared Varma to be a National Art Treasure and prevented the export of his paintings from India, it has become very uncommon for his works to appear at auction internationally, Sotheby’s said.

Apart from being a painter for the elites, the Kerala-based painter also made oleographs, which were mainly depictions of Indian myths, and founded India’s first oleography press in Lonavala, known as the Ravi Varma Oleographic and Chromolithographic Printing Workshop. This made his artwork available to the masses who too could have art in their homes now.

Apart from Varma’s Tilottama, Francis Newton Souza’s Untitled (Head of a Priest) sold for $100,000, up from the estimate of $40,000-$60,000; Rameshwar Broota’s Helmet, sold for $175,000 (estimate $70,000-$90,000), and Bikash Bhattacharjee’s Untitled (Rooftops) sold for $125,000, within the pre-sale estimate of $120,000-$180,000. Also on sale were multiple Jamini Roy paintings and others.