Hugo Weihe, former international director for Asian art at Christie's, recently took over as CEO for Saffronart, one of the largest auction houses for Indian art. He speaks to Manavi Kapur about where India stands compared to China's art market
How did the decision to move from an international auction house to an Indian one come about?
This was a logical transition for me. As director for Asian art for Christie's, I was subconsciously working towards India. This is a great opportunity to build the Indian art market up from the ground and take the great work of curators and collectors forward. Minal and Dinesh Vazirani (of Saffronart) have put in a great amount of effort into bringing different forms of Indian art together and taking this work forward with them is exciting.
Which aspect of the Indian art market holds the most promise in your opinion?
The online space has interesting consequences for the art market here. A lot of poster, tribal and contemporary art is finding buyers online, especially since most of these pieces are priced affordably. For example, Saffronart's online brand, StoryLtd, has broken new ground in promoting popular art and taking it to buyers of all kinds. Sometimes, a lot of the tribal art comes without the artist's name and yet finds takers because of its aesthetic. The next big step would be to open up private collections and display those beautiful Indian antiquities. This is a huge task that requires persistent sourcing and cataloguing. But once Indian antiquities find the right catalyst here, the Indian art market has great potential to compete on an international stage.
Is there a particular genre of Indian art that has remained untapped? What can be done to change that?
That would definitely have to be the antiquities and miniature paintings. The legal framework in India prevents them from travelling out of the country. This has kept the antiquities under wraps. Contemporary Indian art has to prove itself and present itself in a context. But the antiquities already have history on their side. This is India's moment in the art world. Very few countries can claim the richness of culture and heritage that India can. The Americans had to procure European art and buy their way into culture. India already has a 5,000-year-old history with as much art and culture to be proud of.
The change is already coming about. You can see that at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai - a passionate director with the right kind of awareness can make all the difference. A lot of thought has been put into the right kind of display and lighting. Schoolchildren coming to galleries to sketch and take to art, Indian or otherwise, at such an early age is a great sign. The world is embracing Indian art - be it sculptures, paintings or antiquities. The 2016 exhibition at the British Museum is a sign of that. It is time India, too, embraced and reconnected with its history and I am confident that things will pick up.
When compared to the Chinese art market, where does India stand?
While the Indian art market matured quite quickly in the last 15 years, China has years of concentrated efforts behind preserving its art and heritage. Chinese emperors through the ages have supported art in a big way. The government was quick to buy into its own art and bring it back to its own land. This sense of pride and awareness needs to be developed in India.
The Chinese governments also built artist villages to promote contemporary art. This was seen in the case of Guggenheim, too, where an entire city was revived on the shoulders of artistic energy. With events like the Kochi Biennale, I'm hoping similar things happen in India. Such events can have many circumstantial benefits in terms of local tourism and economy. We need more people like Homi Bhabha, the Sarabhais and the Tatas, who can open up their private art collections and be pioneers in promoting Indian art. We are currently nowhere in terms of prices and there is great potential for an upside.