It’s Saturday afternoon and the excitement at the Diwan-i-am in Taj Mahal Hotel on Delhi’s Mansingh Road is palpable. It’s not everyday that one finds a Vasudeo Gaitonde, an SH Raza and an FN Souza under one roof. At the preview of Christie’s first auction in India, giving the modern masters company are artworks by Jamini Roy, MF Husain, Manjit Bawa, Amrita Sher-Gil and Gaganendranath Tagore. On December 19, these and others will go under the hammer in Mumbai.
Market has matured
“Christie’s has had a presence in India for 20 years, but we chose now to conduct sales in the country as the market has matured,” says Hugo Weihe, international director of Asian art, Christie’s. In all 84 lots will go under the hammer. “We want to inspire first-time collectors with artworks that start at ~1 lakh and go up to a few crores,” adds Weihe.
Christie’s will lead the auction with works from the personal collection of the late Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, Mumbai-based gallerists who were key figures in the Indian modern art scene. “The Gaitondes and Husains from the collection are outstanding, as are the Amrita Sher-Gils,” says Neha Kirpal, founder and director of India Art Fair, who attended the preview in Delhi.
Lot 53 Rabindranath TagoreThe untitled landscape by Gaitonde painted early in his career has created quite a buzz. Priced at Rs 8-12 lakh, the gouache on paper is unlike his figurative work from the 1950s and reflects influences of traditional mural and miniature painting. “Bindu by Raza is very poetic. So is the work by Bawa,” says Priyanka Gill, a collector and founder of the lifestyle portal eStylista.com. She looks forward to participating in the auction.
Six of the nine Indian artists who dominated pre-Independence modern art are included in the ‘National Art Treasures’ section. “Works by Abanindranath Tagore, Rabindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose are of such national importance that they can’t leave the country, and when sold, must remain in India,” says Weihe.
Riding out the slowdown
Christie’s debut in India comes at a time when the slump in the economy has been weighing heavy on the Indian art market. However, things may be changing. “The western markets have reached a level of saturation and are looking at newer markets,” says Kirpal. According to London art market analysts ArtTactic, while the Indian art auction market for modern and contemporary art (based on Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Saffronart sales) was $67 million in 2008, it witnessed a drop of 55 per cent in sales with a total of $30.5 million in 2012. “In 2013, total sales until September have reached $34 million, a 12 per cent increase year-on-year,” says Anders Petterson, founder and managing director, ArtTactic.
Lot 10 Tyeb Mehra“Many international art collectors got scared during the speculative years between 2006 and 2008, but most people see a long-term potential for this market. I guess this is also the reason why Christie’s has decided to build a physical presence in India,” he adds.
What is considered an unfavourable dollar-rupee ratio actually works well for collectors abroad as they can purchase masterpieces at corrected prices.
Coupled with this, the soaring prices of masterpieces in recent years makes art a good investment. “In 1991-92, a 6 feet by 4 feet work by Tyeb Mehta sold for ~1.25 lakh. Today it is priced at Rs 7 crore,” says Siddhartha Tagore, director of art gallery and auction house, Art Bull.
Global interest in Indian art is also being fuelled by biennales and retrospectives by international galleries and auction houses such as the Gaintonde retrospective next fall at Guggenheim. “Museums like Tate have formed their South Asian acquisition committees and are looking at collecting contemporary art from there,” says Dhaka-based Nadia Samdani who organises the Dhaka Art Summit.
Amrita Sher-Gill, untitled (Hungarian village church), 32x22 in, 1932, Est 3 crore ($500,000)
The potential Indian buyer
The new Indian art collector is young, well travelled, sensitive to cultural diversities and hence, clued in. “Gone are the days when art was to be bought once you became a millionaire. Today young executives and entrepreneurs want to start collecting art much earlier in life,” says Kirpal. Moreover a price correction of 20-30 per cent for modern art and over 50 per cent for contemporary art has encouraged first-time buyers. “The art centres are no longer Delhi and Mumbai; there are some very interesting collections in Mysore, Surat, Lucknow and Ahmedabad. Collections of great significance in smaller towns is an indicator of how the market is expanding nationally,” says Kirpal.
India vis-a-vis China
Lot 1 GaitondeChristie’s recently made its debut in China as well, but experts believe that the two countries are at the two ends of the art spectrum. “The Indian art market is not even 1 per cent of the Chinese art market,” says Tagore. According to an ArtTactic report, the auction sales for Chinese contemporary art among four auction houses (Christie’s, Sotheby’s, Poly Auction and China Guardian) touched $268 million in 2011, fell to $124 million in 2012 (following price correction) and has rebounded in 2013.
However, the art in China is mostly for the domestic buyers, which is not true of India, point out experts. The Western world also engages better with India because of the ease of language. “High import and custom duties make it difficult for international collectors to take art away from China — it is not open to the world,” adds Kirpal.