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Christie’s debut in India last week was a resounding success, heralding some suppose, a revival for India’s stuttering art market that’s been stuck in a recession for the last 5 years. The auction saw abstractionist painter V S Gaitonde’s landscape set a new world record for an Indian artist selling at a whopping 23.7 cr and managed to garner overall sales of Rs 96.6 crore - double the pre-sale expectations. Dinesh Vazirani – Co-Founder at Saffron Art, the country’s largest online art auction house tells Nikhil Inamdar why this auction was an important event for the Indian art market and how it could get investors to reopen their purses strings.
Was Christie's spectacular debut in Mumbai last week a watershed moment for Indian art?
Well the whole perception of value has come back. There has been a downturn for 5 years and a lot of collectors were not taking art very seriously. But this event has brought the curiosity back, so to that extent it was a watershed moment in terms of taking Indian art out of the recession.
We saw eye popping numbers for works of the likes of Gaitonde and Tyeb Mehta. What were some of the other interesting trends you witnessed at the auction?
There was definitely a resurgence of the Bengal School - works of Rabindranath Tagore, Nandalal Bose etc. We witnessed a growing interest in older masters which have good provenance, even for smaller paper works and in prices points across the catalogue.
Would you say the Indian arts scene is out of the woods and given the kind of interest we saw at the Christie's auction, is it safe to say prices have inched back to per crisis levels?
We've definitely re-calibrated if not gone a little ahead of the pre-crisis level prices at least for the top notch artists. Part of the reason for that is supply which is getting lesser as more and more of the older masters go into museum and permanent collections. Are we out of the woods? We could well be, considering that there is an audience again that's looking at art, paying more attention to art and asking the right questions. But it would take the first 3 months of 2014 to make a definitive judgment on that.
What's your outlook for 2014?
Things are definitely more charged up and lots of people are planning interesting events and shows. It is definitely going to be more positive than last year. Another barometer after Christie's will be the Indian Art Fair that's going to be held in January – that should decide which way we go. Broadly, there is definitely sustainability at the top end, for the Moderns, and we hope to see that trickle down to Contemporary Art which has been neglected in this downturn.
How much of what trajectory the art market takes from here will depend on a recovery in the broader economy?
Traditionally the art market has been a benefactor of the feel good factor, but there is no direct correlation. Across the globe, the market has boomed across price points and genres despite a deep slowdown. In the end, no matter what the economy looks like, collectors will always go for great paintings.
Inevitably there are lots of comparisons between the Indian and Chinese markets in most areas of business. Tell me a little about how they compare and how they are different in the art world.
Well for one, the Chinese market is way larger than the Indian market, so from that perspective there is indeed no comparison. Of the total global market size of $15 billion, Chinese art makes up about $6 billion. We on the other hand are still at the $100 million mark. And the reason for that is unlike the Chinese we have, despite having 5,000 years of culture in our backyard, taken art for granted. If we do not change our attitude and start preserving museums and galleries, building infrastructure etc, it won't take long for what we have to disappear as well.
By when do you predict we will get from $100 million to say a $1 billion?
Difficult to say. It would be an achievement even if we get to $200 million and I don't think that target should be difficult to achieve in the next year.
What would your advise be to a first time investor? Is this the right time to put in some money into art?
Try and learn as much as you can about art by visiting websites, museums and galleries. The more educated you are, the more you will resonate with what's good and what isn't. It is definitely a good time to invest, because I believe we are at an inflection point.
Are you seeing a broader expansion or maturing of the market, from an investment perspective or is it still largely restricted to the wealthy? Are we seeing art as an investment gaining popularity in the affordable luxury segment?
Absolutely. Contemporary art starts at a range of Rs 50,000 - Rs 75,000. You may not be able afford a Raza, but there is scope to invest in contemporary or other genres like folk, tribal and rural art or even paper works of some of the masters. Artists work across mediums, surfaces and formats so there is always something affordable and within your range if you look carefully.
Finally, with the market developing, international bigwigs like Christie's setting their eyes more discerningly on India, do you see competition for domestic auction houses such as Saffron Art hotting up?
The market is large enough for everyone to co-exist. Also any market is only as strong as the players in it - their capacity to invest money, engage clients, source collections. I think the Christie's auction if anything will benefit us because everyone is now re-engaging in art. Of course competition will get stiffer because we will now be vying for the same set of paintings. But that's healthy because it will push us harder to compete for better catalogues and source newer collections.