World's art dealers hope for Indian summer

The highest-priced sale at Delhi's Indian Art Summit was made by a London gallery, while a Dusseldorf gallery generated some of the biggest crowds.

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The highest-priced sale at Delhi's Indian Art Summit was made by a London gallery, while a Dusseldorf gallery generated some of the biggest crowds. Faced with market paralysis in the art world's traditional centres, international galleries came last week to India's largest art fair, hoping to benefit from the country's healthier economy.

"We thought it was very positive and people seem to be taking the plunge," says Michelle D'Souza, the director of London's Lisson Gallery. "We've sold a very large percentage in terms of value and we have offered only very minimal discounts. We were not expecting such a response." Ms D'Souza sold two untitled sculptures by the leading British artist Anish Kapoor, each for a rumoured price of £200,000 (Dh1.1 million). The gallery also sold work by the celebrated British artist Julian Opie.

Dusseldorf's Beck and Eggeling gallery brought a collection of Picasso etchings, hoping to demonstrate that work by some of Europe's greatest artists could be affordable. "The Picassos have just been a complete magnet. We didn't expect this overwhelming curious interest from people," says Katja Ott from the gallery. The gallery sold one etching, Le Circle, for US$20,000 (Dh73,460). Of the 54 galleries at the fair, 17 came from outside India, with those from established centres such as London, New York, Berlin and Tokyo joined by others from Beijing, Dubai, Bangkok, Taiwan and even Latvia.

Rob Dean, a former India representative of Christie's auctioneers who now runs London's Rob Dean Art gallery, says the fair was an escape from the gloom back home. "From the talk here, there's an upswing in the mood, which there definitely is not in London," he says. "In London, having a gallery is the equivalent of art storage, beautifully presented art storage. People here don't think it's as bad here as they do in the rest of the world. "

Neha Kirpal, the associate director of the fair, says a lot of the western galleries "are in markets which are struggling at the moment. Here, the recession has certainly lifted. There are individuals who have walked through the door and left after buying 18 paintings." Ms Kirpal says 40,000 people had visited the fair between July 19 and July 22, including visitors from 32 countries. The UK's Art 18|21 and Bangkok's Thavibu Gallery sold everything they brought. As well as the major Indian collectors, Ms Kirpal said wealthy collectors from China and Korea had also been buying.

India's art market has taken off this decade as Indians who have made fortunes internationally have sought out works by the country's post-war masters such as FN Souza and MF Hussein. The three highest prices fetched by Indian paintings all came last year, with FN Souza's Birth setting the record in June when it went under the hammer at Christie's for 112m Indian rupees (Dh8.4m). The Indian market corrected soon after, with prices falling more than a third by the start of this year. At the Delhi fair, gallery owners said buyers were still expecting discounts.

Vikram Sethi, who helps some of India's richest build their collections, says economic statistics are a poor indicator of the buying power of Indian collectors. "The people who buy art aren't people who are so much affected by the stock market and by the recession," he says. "Our economy is not a true reflection of the money there is in India. India has so much money, we don't even know how much money we have. There's a lack of confidence, there's nothing else."

Mr Dean said this buying power was now increasingly looking to buy international as well as Indian art. "In the past, it's been quite difficult for domestic Indians to purchase foreign art because there were exchange regulations. All of those barriers are slowly being removed. The amount of money a private individual is able to spend overseas, I'm not sure it's even limited any more."