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More comfort in buying art online: Nish Bhutani

Interview with chief operating officer, Saffronart

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In the last few years, has added several new categories of collectibles to its online auction platform — from fine jewellery, art d’objects and watches to premium real-estate, antiquities, carpets, classic car, and Art Deco furniture. It has also diversified into auctions for sculpture, photography, prints, drawings, and tribal paintings.

Gargi Gupta speaks to Nish Bhutani,chief operating officer, Saffronart about this flurry of new auctions

In the past year Saffronart has added several product categories to its auction platform? Is this a strategy to reduce the dependence on art, given the sustained significant downturn in prices over the last few years?
Over the years, we have built a vibrant online platform and a rich collector base for art. But we realised that their aspirations had gone beyond art and that we could help them collect other niche unique and rare goods of aesthetic and historical significance as well. There is a recent study by Barclays which shows that in the US, 9 per cent of the wealth of high net-worth individuals is invested in a class of ‘treasure’ assets which includes art, antiques, fine jewellery and watches and so on; in China the figure is 17 per cent, while in India it is only 3 per cent. Thus there is considerable scope to grow the market in India where collecting is still a young activity.

How much has Saffronart's business grown in the past year?
I can’t share figures but Saffronart’s volumes have tripled in terms of number of products shipped in the last 12 months; also revenues from non-art objects have doubled in the past year. As for art, which is central to our business, there has been a steady growth. For instance, 71 per cent of the lots on offer were sold in the September autumn art auction, including a Tyeb Mehta work for Rs 9.63 crore.

Have you discerned any change in buying behaviour, or in the profile of buyers on Saffronart?
There is a downward trend in the age of buyers, for one. People in their 30s comprise a greater number of our buyers now. The 24-hour online auctions, which we introduced last year, have attracted new buyers. In particular our absolute auctions with no reserve prices and auctions of small format works and Words and Lines (art books and drawings by recognised artists) have also all been useful in attracting new markets. There is now a greater comfort with buying art online.

In September, Saffronart had a private sale of watches and later, an exhibition of silverware at the Delhi gallery. Are private sales a recent venture and how large are these at Saffronart given that of late, private transactions have been adding hugely to the business of the heritage auction houses in the West?
We’ve been doing private sales and exhibitions for some years now. These are useful channels when buyers and sellers don’t want to go the auction route. Mostly, however, these are not publicised at the preference of the seller. As for art exhibitions, we partner with galleries all over in hosting them and our exhibitions of collectibles such as the silverware exhibition are a relatively new initiative.

Any plans to open physical galleries in other cities?
Saffronart has a combination of an online and offline model with spaces where buyers can experience the works. We will use this mixed model in the future, too, but there are no plans for more galleries.

The Saffronart blog is a new initiative. Any plans to turn to publishing?
We are already in the content space with our catalogues. The blog is a way of stepping up engagement by educating people about the context of the works on sale. These social media initiatives are suited to our online platform. But it is still early days and we are working on this area.

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