The dormant Indian art market could get a wake-up call through Christie's first auction in India
By: Suman Tarafdar
Posted on: December 12, 2013
When the global economic crisis scorched the globe in 2008, one of the most spectacular losers was the nascent Indian art market. Indian art had seen a quantum leap in valuation between 2000 and 2007, with the stock of many contemporary artists rising more than hundredfold. And then the crash happened, and many opportunistic investors are still chasing gallerists who sold them the duds, to find a buyer a tenth of the price they paid!
Well, the following years have not been easy, even though the India Art Fair gave a much needed fillip to the market by keeping it afloat. Art aficionados are hoping that Christie’s, the largest global art auctioneers, will provide another leg up to this struggling sector when it has its first auction in India on December 19, almost 20 years after it set up office here in 1994. A high profile art event such as this one could be a gauge of the extent of renewal.
Christie’s first auction in India, incidentally its 12th auction room in the world, will feature 83 modern and contemporary Indian arts, estimated to fetch $6-8 million. Going under the hammer will be artworks by modern masters and leading Bengal School artists such as S.H. Raza, Tyeb Mehta, M.F. Husain, V.S. Gaitonde, Ram Kumar, FN Souza, Amrit Shergil, Tagores – Rabindranath, Abanindranth and Gagendranath, Ganesh Pyne, Nandalal Bose, Ram Kinkar Baij, Somnath Hore and Jamini Roy, while works of more contemporary artists such as Anju Dodiya, Shibu Natesan and Jitish Kallat feature too.
The targets are modest, especially when compared to prices of works such as Raza’s Saurashtra, which sold for $3.4 million in 2010, and the sale of Tyeb Mehta’s Mahisasura, which had spurred the Indian art market by selling at $1.58 million in 2005.
Among the collections that will be on sale, one is by Mumbai-based gallerists duo, the late Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy of Gallery Chemould. The Gandhys started collecting in the 1940s, and played a significant role in establishing modern Indian art. “Together Kekoo and Khorshed Gandhy, initially through their framing business and later on at Gallery Chemould, prepared the framework for young artists to thrive. The value of their support and patronage to this group is reflected among the works of art in their collection,” said Mr Hugo Weihe, International Director, Asian Art, Christie’s. Mr Wiehe incidentally had met Gandhy’s eldest daughter in Switzerland years ago, and from then had connected with the family.
Mr Wiehe also stresses the importance of Tagore and his role in shaping thought, and opines that the Bengal school works should be valued much more.
Auctions of Indian art have hitherto been held abroad, by Christies, and other auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Bonham’s. Dr Amin Jaffer of Christie’s says, “The drivers of the market were high net worth Indians living abroad, mainly in America and the UK. Indian art auctions have therefore been held in New York and London.” He, however, points to a shift that indicates buyers would prefer to buy in India. "We will look at the response of this auction closely to understand the market, says Dr Jaffer. This would eliminate the 14.7 per cent import tax and reduce the cost of transport considerably.
There is also a strong collector base in India, feels Mr Weihe, underscoring the need to focus on the country. “We hope to attract resident collectors,” he says. “We want to raise recognition about Indian art, not just in London and New York, but also in India. Everyone wants to learn about India, its India’s moment now.”
About putting the collection for this auction together, Sonal Singh, a specialist at Christie’s South Asian Modern and Contemporary art department, says the auction was very clear that they had a few boxes to check. This included having some specific artists, a concentration on quality and about 80 -90 lots to sell. “As it is an evening sale, we wanted a tight sale of the best quality,” says Ms Singh, keeping her fingers crossed for a good response to the auction.
For an inaugural sale, we are cautious,” stresses Mr Jaffer, though he also expects that the auction will be a success. He mentions that Christie’s will analyse the sale post auction, and will decide further on making it an annual feature in the Indian art calendar. As for the return of the contemporary artists to greater financial favour, Mr Jaffer says, “We believe they will have staying power. The joy of contemporary art also lies in its unpredictability.” Christie’s usually has bigger sales of Indian art in New York and London, and has quite a number coming up in 2014.
In what is surely a first sign of a geographically broader art market, 15 per cent of Christie’s bidders have been from Asia this year. Incidentally, this year saw the auction house host its first sale in mainland China, in Shanghai, in September. Of course, its Hong Kong office has had a long run of success since its first auction there in 1986. Christie’s global network includes 10 auction centres and 53 offices in 32 countries It conducts auctions in 80 different categories worldwide. Christie’s links to India go back to 1766 when founder James Christie offered ‘four fine India pictures painted on glass’ in its inaugural sale. In 1995, it held its first India art sale in London. The news of its first Indian auction has certainly created ripples in the Indian market. Irrespective of how it goes, it is a significant milestone for Indian art. The auction has works by six artists designated ‘National Treasures’, and whose works by law, cannot be sold outside India.
The auction in Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Hotel was preceded by a preview exhibition in Delhi from December 7-9, 2013. To what extent it will help revive confidence in valuations of Indian art remains to be seen, though it will refocus the spotlight on the best of Indian art.
Suman Tarafdar is a journalist and writer based in Delhi. He has worked with a number of leading Indian media organisations, and writes on various aspects of luxury, lifestyle and culture. When not writing to earn a living, he likes to travel, read, cook, chat, shop and watch all kinds of soppy stuff on tv. Yes, current politics bothers him.