The media went abuzz when Sotheby’s second auction in Mumbai, in November 2019, failed to sell its cover lot — a `21.4 crore Gaitonde painting. Some speculated it to be an indicator of the economic slowdown’s effect on the market. The Indian art business, however, is way more complicated and nuanced for one sale to determine its status. “You can’t judge the market on the performance of one painting,” says Dinesh Vazirani, Founder of Saffronart auction house. “It is a fairly small market where sometimes one player has an impact on all players.
Yet, time has shown that this is short-lived and easily forgotten,” says Sonal Singh, Head of South Asian and Modern Contemporary Art at Christie’s Mumbai. There could be factors unrelated to the market at large that were perhaps responsible for the work not selling. “At those price points, buyers are very limited anyway,” says a spokesperson from Pundole’s auction house. “Of course, there is a certain caution being exercised by all collectors, and that is the reality of the current economic climate.
”Nevertheless, great works continue to come up at auctions and one can already see some new excitement on the horizon. If it’s of top quality and priced right, it will sell. In the Indian market today, modernists rule the hearts and pockets of the bidders as they have for years. Indian contemporary art is getting more
traction from museums and institutions abroad. Younger and newer collectors are entering the market, mainly online, at lower price points. Foreigners, though, aren’t investing as much in Indian art as they did during the boom (2005 to 2007). However, there seems to be a renewed interest there as well.
“The art market seems to be volatile with some works going for many multiples of estimate and some works doing poorly in auctions,” says Indrajit Chatterjee, Director of Prinseps auction house. The collectors seem to come to sales with their minds made up regarding specific items they wish to bid on versus being open to other works they may get at good values.
The hard-to-source, top quality paintings of late artists MF Husain, SH Raza, Tyeb Mehta and FN Souza are the most desired currently, as their supply is very limited. Over the last decade, many great paintings have gone into private and museum collections. The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, a private museum in Delhi, collected over 5,000 works, including great masters, in the last ten years. “These seldom come back to the market for sale, and sometimes never,” says Vazirani. The demand, on the other hand, is of course growing. “The more aware and educated people today want to buy only the best. Mark my words in the next five years, the top, rare works will be priced at `50 crore and above.”
In the period from the 1900s to around 1980s, when these paintings were made, before the existence of a secondary market in India, the production of art was limited as collectors were fewer, the number of museums was small too. Few artworks were bought and fewer resold. “Given the scarcity or the rarity value of artworks from this period, they have continued to be chased,” explains Chatterjee.
The biggest artists of this period, the Progressives and their peers had a transformative impact on Indian art in the 20th century. “Their pioneering spirit, combined with their colourful, bold aesthetic, continues to inspire collectors and attract multimillion-dollar bids,” says Ishrat Kanga, Deputy Director, Specialist, Sotheby’s auction house. Even in the South Asian art market, works of the modernists are in high demand. A few days ago, Christie’s sold Modern Chinese art “Five Nudes 1895-1966” by Sanyu for $39,045,331 in Hong Kong during their 20th Contemporary Art Evening Sale, which totalled HK$880,992,500/ $113,159,016 with 83 per cent sold by lot 95 per cent by value.
“At an auction, we have seen more demand for works by Modernists,” says Singh. “Our job as auctioneers is to seek out and offer works that are rare and difficult to find, and most often it’s a piece by an older artist.” Most contemporary artists work with galleries, which makes their works a bit more easy to find, Singh explains.
Beyond the Masters
Then there are also mid-level moderns and their prices are going up as well. Essentially paintings in the range of `25 lakh to crore and crore and a half fall under this category. It includes smaller works of the masters, paperwork of Tyeb or Gaitonde and another slew of artists such as Krishen Khanna, Ram Kumar, Arpita Singh, Rameshwar Broota, Jogen Choudhari; those right below the Bombay Progressive Artists.
The Indian art market is about so much more than the handful of masters, says Kanga. Many other 20th century artists have long been overlooked but are now being re-examined, such as Jyoti Bhatt, Mohan Samant and Pakhal Tirumal Reddy. Auction prices for Bhupen Khakhar are now beginning to match those of his Western contemporaries following the $3.2 million sales of Two Men in Benares at Sotheby’s London in early 2019. This painting is now on loan to the Art Institute of Chicago, where it hangs alongside pieces by international contemporary artists including David Hockney. Similarly, Mrinalini Mukherjee is now also getting her due with a recent retrospective at the Met Breuer, New York.
Since the economy crashed in 2008, the contemporary Indian art market has been struggling. Unfortunately, after the Lehman crisis and the fall in prices of contemporary art in India, the number of galleries, generally the first point of contact for many new collectors, followed by auction houses, have fallen by quite a bit. “This has not helped and we feel the collector base has not grown much due to this reason,” says Chatterjee. “I don’t understand why Indian collectors are so behind their time,” says a leading Indian contemporary artist who doesn’t wish to be named. “Contemporary art is being well-received abroad but Indian collectors are still chasing works of artists who have passed away,” she adds.
Vazirani seconds her. Within India, young collectors who resonate with contemporary issues and aesthetics are buying these works. This section though is very well represented outside India through art fairs, biennales, etc. India’s pavilion for the 58th Venice Biennale featured contemporary artists Atul Dodiya, GR Iranna, Rummana Hussain, Jitish Kallat, Shakuntala Kulkarni, and Ashim Purkayastha, “displaying the immense breadth and depth of art that is being created today,” says Kanga.
She believes that South Asian contemporary art is flourishing. “There is a continued demand for contemporary art both at auction and in the primary market.” In early 2019, at Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art, in New York, Sotheby’s sold US-based artist Huma Bhabha’s sculpture for $200,000, creating a new world record for the artist at an auction. There have also been a string of strong results for American-Pakistani artist Shahzia Sikander recently; four of the five highest auction prices for the artist have been set at Sotheby’s in the past couple of years. “Contemporary art is a global market and buyers transact worldwide – wherever the work of interest is offered the collectors are active. Today, collectors no longer collect by nation or school, the global world we are living in is reflected in today’s contemporary art collections,” says Singh.
The market today has a combination of collectors – young and old, mostly Indians and NRIs. A new collector with Saffronart, in his 40s, bought one out of the two big-ticket Gaitondes that the auction house sold this year. Among the young, people with a lot of wealth haven’t jumped into the market that headstrong, says Vazirani. Though what used to be the starting point of young collectors about $5000 has now moved up to $10,000. These collectors are actively participating in auctions online, a non-threatening space, which they are familiar with.
Christie’s figures show an upward trend as the small group of art enthusiasts and collectors they cater to is growing dynamically, says Singh. In the past three years, the auction house welcomed around 30 per cent new clients each year, of which 41 per cent were entering the art market via their online sales. The top categories for attracting new buyers were luxury sales (32 per cent) and Post-War and contemporary art sales (16 per cent) during the 12 months of 2018. 50 per cent of these new clients are under the age of 45.
Today’s market is being shaped by a new generation, mostly in their 30s and 40s, says Kanga. “They are looking beyond the household names in Indian art, and discovering a new world of long overlooked or emerging artists.” In 2018, in Sotheby’s sales of Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art, over 40 per cent of bidders were new to Sotheby’s, and over 40 per cent of buyers were under 40.
Businessman and collector Aakash Belsare, 38, has been collecting art for a decade now. “This is a great time to buy contemporary art as the prices are almost as low as they were ten years ago, and in some cases even lower,” he says. He recently acquired works of Baiju Parthan, Atul and Anju Dodiya and Madhvi and Manu Parekh. “A lot of work is being shuffled around at very competitive prices, which benefits the collectors of contemporary art like me.”
There could be many more coming in if the art fraternity’s efforts and government’s support is channelled into building a better art infrastructure – more museums and better preservation, educational institutions and public art installations that promote art appreciation. “I feel an emphasis on the importance of our culture and heritage at every level will go a long way,” says Singh.
It would also be of great help if some taxes and import duties are revised. The GST on art right now is 12 per cent and import duty is 10 per cent plus surcharge. “Logically, if one is bringing an Indian painting back to India, why should there be a duty on it,” says Vazirani. “Museum donations should be allowed as part of CSR initiatives,” says Chatterjee. A little incentive to galleries will also go a long away in kick-starting the art market.
A large onus, however, also falls on the art fraternity. The players of the art market must practise perseverance and patience. “As an emerging market, we are growing slowly, which means as a community, there is a lot to be done,” says Singh. There is clearly a need for more galleries. The existing galleries must more aggressively exhibit Indian art, not just in India but also lobby for shows and representations in international exhibitions and fairs.
The collectors must make more private collections available for the wider public. “As an auction house with sales held in over 14 locations, we have worked closely with our international teams to position and present Indian art to a much wider audience,” says Singh.
Indian jewellery at auctions
Over the last five years, Indian heritage pieces have been doing exceptionally well in Indian and international markets. Collectors want to bid for heirloom pieces that boast of great craftsmanship, quality gems, stellar history and provenance. “The Indian jewellery market is one of the most pervasive and sophisticated in the world, as it is one of the oldest and richest in tradition,” says Minal Vazirani, Co-Founder of Saffronart. Gems and jewels from India have occupied a significant position in the international jewellery market as the global awareness of our rich cultural heritage and craftsmanship has revived and garnered tremendous interest through various events such as Saffronart’s biennial jewellery conference, publications, and important pieces coming up for sale, such as the Al Thani collection.
“As in art, we see a focus away from the smaller jewellers or galleries to completely transparent platforms such as auctions,” says Chatterjee. Moreover, collectors, 70 per cent from India and 30 per cent abroad, have realised that many of the natural pearls, coloured stones are relatively rare, and therefore, good for investment. Saffronart is now seeing an increase in younger, informed collectors who understand the significance, uniqueness and rarity of jewellery, in addition to an appreciation of aesthetics, wearability and innovative design.
“This is also a group that places a value on historical significance, provenance and rarity, yet is comfortable straddling the old and new – bidding on a mobile app in our online auctions for heritage pieces but also seeking out contemporary designs focused on innovation,” adds Vazirani.
The secondary market hence has been growing and will continue to evolve in the future, particularly for important jewels, as many of the vintage or antique pieces have been bought by collections that have been institutionalised and are not expected to emerge in the market.