India’s art scene is the new big draw for bidders

International auction houses are turning to India. The reason is that increasingly affluent residents, and foreign art lovers alike, have found that local artists’ works are artefacts to treasure.
Bidding for artist Tyeb Mehta's untitled canvas depicting a falling bull sold for 150 million rupees at a Christie’s auction. Subhash Sharma for The National
Bidding for artist Tyeb Mehta's untitled canvas depicting a falling bull sold for 150 million rupees at a Christie’s auction. Subhash Sharma for The National

MUMBAI // A hush descends over the packed room in the Taj Mahal Palace hotel in Mumbai as a striking painting of a falling bull is brought out before the audience at the auction.

Bidding is fierce, starting at 50 million rupees (Dh2.88m). One man in the crowd raises his hand to offer 110m rupees. A telephone bidder beats that with 120m rupees, before an online bidder in New York enters proceedings. The battle continues and the price rises to 150m rupees. “Sold,” the auctioneer declares, as he brings down his hammer, “to our bidder all the way from New York”. Applause breaks out.

This scene took place this month at a Christie’s auction of Indian art, which raised more than US$12m in total. It was only the second auction the London-based company had held in India since its inaugural event a year ago – although it had previously auctioned Indian art in London, New York, and Dubai.

The painting of the bull, the most expensive lot of the evening, was by Tyeb Mehta, an artist who was born in Gujarat, spent most of his life in Mumbai, and died in 2009 at the age of 83.

Christie’s has turned its attention to the Indian market, with values of works by noted modern artists rising in India and an increasing demand for great art amid the growing wealth of the country, with the number of millionaires and billionaires rapidly expanding.

“We can’t afford to not be here,” says Paul Hewitt, the managing director for growth markets at Christie’s.

Chinese buyers have been snapping up art across the world in recent years and, while Indians may not be buying as aggressively, the subcontinent is still an important market that is only expected to grow, he adds.

Rajan Sehgal, who is Credit Suisse’s private banking managing director for India and non-resident Indians, believes that investing in art is becoming a more popular option among its Indian clients.

“We’re very optimistic on the art market,” he says. A painting by M F Husain, another internationally recognised Indian artist, who died in 2011, which would have cost about $100,000 about 10 years ago today goes for $1.5m, he adds.

The fact that Christie’s last year started holding auctions in India only helps to drive prices up further.

Art in India is definitely becoming more widely sought after, experts agree.

“There is a growing demand for art and a little better aesthetic appreciation is there for sure,” says Kiran Shinde, the executive director of the Pune Biennale, an art festival which showcases Indian artists and aims to bring art to the masses in the subcontinent. “Global travel by Indians is on the rise. They see a lot of new stuff, feel inspired. There’s a lot of people coming back to India who have had exposure to art and demanding similar kinds of experiences here, says Mr Shinde.

“ Consumerism is on the rise. There’s a good disposable income that people have. Art is one more commodity on the market for them. The number of galleries have mushroomed in the last five to 10 years.”

But it is not only ultra-wealthy Indians who are spending more on art, he adds. “The number of people looking at spending $500, $1,000 on art is increasing.”

Arshiya Lokhandwala owns the Lakareen gallery for contemporary art in Colaba, an upmarket neighbourhood in south Mumbai. She explains that the market for contemporary art boomed from 2004 to 2008 as speculators piled in and prices soared, but that all collapsed when the global economic crisis arrived.

Contemporary refers to more current works of art than modern pieces.

“I think a lot of collectors just bought anything, not quality works,” Ms Lokhandwala explains. “Buyers became dealers. It was completely crazy. They got stuck with a lot of work that wasn’t really very good, so they burnt their fingers.”

Since 2009 the contemporary art market slumped and “sales are really tough”, she says.

The market for modern masters, such as Tyeb Mehta, M F Husain and F N Souza, is thriving, however, because works by such artists are widely accepted and recognised as having genuine artistic value. Many such modern artists have died in recent years, so the limited supply helps to inflate prices. In the case of contemporary artists, however, the supply continues as they keep producing work.

“Now the market is very selective,” says Ms Lokhandwala. “People prefer the moderns that you have in the auction. People are willing to invest but they want to make sure that the work is safeguarded.”

Anita Dube, 56, is an Indian contemporary artist from New Delhi, who has her works in the collections of institutions including the Tate Modern in London and the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in New Delhi.

“I think the art market in India is very conservative,” Ms Dube says. “They’re not daring enough to buy contemporary stuff. They’re willing to put money into old masters because that’s like stocks rising in value. With contemporary, nobody’s sure whether it’s going to rise or fall.”

She has found it a struggle being an artist in India and trying to gain recognition, she says.

“Some important works of mine made in 1997 were sold last year. It has been difficult. There have been times I had no money.”

Parul Gupta, 34 an artist from New Delhi, who was exhibiting her work for sale at the Lakareen gallery in Mumbai, with prices averaging about 50,000 rupees, said that the slowdown in India’s economic growth was a factor in hampering sales of her pieces.

“People are coming and they’re liking it, but there is an inhibition to buying such kind of work,” she says.

But there are some Indians who are avid fans and collectors of contemporary art.

Sajai Singh, a partner at a law firm in Bangalore, has hundreds of artworks in his collection, with a large number of contemporary works by little-known Indian artists as well as paintings he has acquired on his travels.

“My interest in art has been there since childhood,” he says. “I pick up work that I like and I’ve never collected art for the [monetary] value of art.”

Mr Hewitt is expecting interest in Indian art globally to increase beyond the expat community abroad, which have been supporting the market.

“I’m confident as the institutions collect and show it and the recognition from having had auctions of Indian art in India grows, we’ll start to see other international collectors coming in.” With a significant Indian population in the Arabian Gulf region and parallels to be found between Indian and Arab culture and art, Mr Hewitt is hoping that there might be potential to bridge the markets.

“What we’re hoping to see is a cross-fertilisation of interest,” he says. “The questions in my mind are will we get Arabs interested in Indian art? Will we get Indians interested in Arab art? I don’t know. But what I know is that we’re going to be following those trends.”

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Published: December 20, 2014 04:00 AM


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