Interview: Amin Jaffer of Christie’s on the art scene in India

December 3, 2014

India is falling behind China as an emerging powerhouse on the global art scene because it rarely turns up at international art fairs or invests in new museums to promote its artists, an official at auctioneer Christie’s said.

Amin Jaffer, international director of Asian art at Christie’s, said the Chinese government, unlike India, is enhancing its museums and encouraging art exhibitors.

Jaffer spoke to Reuters about the art scene in India and where he sees Christie’s India auctions a decade from now. Edited excerpts from the interview:

Q: How would you describe the art scene in India?
A: What we are seeing is the art scene is becoming very rounded. At one time it was just a few galleries. Now we have a gallery scene, a (Kochi) Biennale, art fair, international auction house presence, local auction house presence and also Indian artists featuring in museums and museum exhibitions around the world. So we are seeing growth and it’s an exciting time.

Q: How did the financial crisis affect Indian art?
A: What’s happened after the financial crash is that the market has become much more selective. So the very finest and rarest things like a (Vasudeo) Gaitonde, a (F.N) Souza; things that are from a golden period of an artist’s production, in good condition, desirable subject, good provenance, these things meet very, very high demand and we see very spectacular prices for them that reflect their desirability.

What has happened simultaneously is that works that are in plentiful supply, that are abundant, that are sometimes not the greatest work of an artist’s production, are not sought after. There was a time when people were buying works of art as if it were a speculative commodity. That market is over. People today are not buying works of art to resell them; they buy works of art to hold them and to keep them.

Q: Would you say that the market for modern art has remained steady in India while contemporary art has fallen?
A: I would say that modern art has risen in value. The best works have risen very substantially. The rarest and the finest works have risen very substantially. With contemporary art, you are absolutely right. The highest values achieved for many of our contemporary artists were in 2004, 5, 6, 7. Now we’ve seen a very major correction. But as I say, it all follows a supply issue. The fact is contemporary artists are still alive, they are still producing. Rarity in our market is what makes value.

Q: Who buys art in India?
A: There are significant collectors within India and significant NRI (non-resident Indian) collectors. They form the core of the buying. We are seeing institutional collecting as well. Western institutions, Tate for example. And we are seeing some collecting by international collectors.

Q: What is India’s contribution to the global art market?
A: We are seeing the Indian art market still has a very long way to go. There are various things that need to happen. We need to see more Indian involvement internationally. For example, the Venice Biennale. Every two years, all the countries in the world have pavilions in which they represent their artists. I think India has been represented only once. But every two years, China has a huge pavilion. America is one of the main there. Even small countries have big pavilions. India is not represented.

Q: What must the Indian government do to promote art?
A: I would say investment in museums, investment in art education. Countries in the West that have the most evolved art markets – America, Britain, France, Italy – children from the youngest age learn about art … India has a rich heritage, an ancient civilization, but we are not that culturally aware of the role that institutions can play in our lives. So I would say enhancing museums, art education is very important.

Certainly there have been changes in tax tariffs applied on art and that’s made a big difference, but obviously if you lower the import tariff, you’ll see more art coming into the country, more art activity. Some of the issues just relate to regulation. Places like Hong Kong, where you can import and export very easily, of course, see a boom in the art market because a trader or a dealer or a gallerist can put on great exhibitions in an environment that is very conducive. We still don’t have that type of environment here.

Q: A Chinese billionaire bought a silk thangka for $45 million at a Christie’s auction in Hong Kong recently and media reports quoted him as saying that he wanted to bring back the rare work of art to China. Do you see similar sentiments among India’s wealthy?
A: Not yet. And it has to do with legislation. I don’t want to comment too much on government policy. But the tradition in India is that if you own anything over 100 years of age, you have to register it. Once you’ve registered it, you cannot export it; even within the country, moving it needs permission. Selling it therefore becomes a little bit complicated. Therefore, if you buy a historic Indian work of art in Europe and bring it back, there are restrictions on the way you can handle it going forward. So that in a way can be a disincentive.

You see the Chinese government has incentivized Chinese citizens to bring back works of art. And the Chinese government itself is active in promoting its culture, in enhancing its museums, in sending international exhibitions of Chinese works of art as an expression of soft power. So this is what I am saying we need to do in this country. Which is to incentivise the appreciation and the ownership.

Q: Will the second Christie’s auction in India beat last year’s numbers?
A: The success of auction depends on the quality of material that we bring to the market. We know that there is demand for these works, which is why we offer them. And we are very, very hopeful. We’ve had a huge response, and very positive feedback from the marketplace – collectors as well as from dealers. We’re happy that we are selling here. In a way, we’ve upped the stakes of the auction market in India. And certainly, we’re able to bring to market fantastic things that people want to own. So we are very, very positive. We experience a lot of demand on the ground. So we are confident.

Q: Where do you see Christie’s auctions in India 10 years from now?
A: I think 10 years from now in India, we’ll be selling in multiple categories. Right now, we are selling modern and contemporary art and we have a licence to sell antiquities within the country as well. But hopefully in 10 years, we’ll be selling Impressionist paintings, modern paintings, post-War and contemporary art from international sources, jewellery … there’s a huge appetite within the country. We’ll be doing a larger variety of sales.

Q: What is your advice for first-time buyers?
A: Before you buy, you should always do a fair bit of research. If you are interested in Gaitonde, get the Guggenheim catalogue, and understand the significance and position of your work. Research is absolutely essential.

The auction process can often be intimidating. My advice is to go online and watch auctions taking place all over the world to familiarize yourself with the bidding increments and how they operate. It’s important to know what you are bidding on. If it’s a work of art that’s truly a one of a kind, rare thing coming to market, then sometimes it’s important to bid strong in order to get it.

If it’s a work of art that’s one of a series or abundant or comes regularly, it’s important to know the value and stick within your limits. Knowledge is the key in buying anything. On the other hand, there’s a lot of heart that goes into buying art. It’s not purely a financial decision. You may come and fall in love with this and decide it’s something you really want to live with – it’s going to enhance your life owning it. The most important thing is to do your research.

Q: Do you still find people investing in art as an asset?
A: I would say that within Indian modern/contemporary art, it is decreasing. Before 2007, people were looking at works of art solely as investment. I think after the crash in 2008, people realized that you buy a work of art because you love it, because it means something to you. Over a course of time, you hope it appreciates. If it’s a rare thing, it will appreciate no doubt. But you don’t buy it as something that you are just going to flip and turn over.

Q: Which works of art would you like to have in your personal collection?
A: I could have all of them. The Tyeb Mehta is probably what I would really love to have. The (F.N.) Souza is quite spectacular and I love the (S.H.) Raza. They are all fine works but if I could take my pick, I would probably take the Tyeb Mehta.

(Editing by Robert MacMillan; Follow Tony on Twitter @tonytharakan and Robert @bobbymacReports; This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)

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