Baby steps for India art market, best yet to come

December 2, 2015

“Bindu”, 1983, Syed Haider Raza

As Christie’s gets ready to hold its third art auction in Mumbai in December, the growing international appeal of Indian artworks is fuelling optimism about the country’s fledgling art market. Here’s why:

* A retrospective of abstract painter Vasudeo Santu Gaitonde is on at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, a year after its New York debut.

* At Christie’s 2013 India sale, an untitled Gaitonde painting fetched $3.8 million. This year, a painting by Francis Newton Souza was sold for a record $4 million at a Christie’s auction in New York.

* Modernist Nasreen Mohamedi’s work is being showcased in Madrid until January before the exhibition moves to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

At last week’s New Delhi preview of Christie’s India auction, works by Gaitonde, Tyeb Mehta and Syed Haider Raza were given pride of place – a sign of growing demand for modern Indian art within the domestic and international community.

The untitled Gaitonde work, painted in 1995, is estimated to fetch between $1.85 million to $2.3 million, roughly matching the range for “Bindu”, a 1983 painting by Raza.

Tyeb Mehta, whose painting of a falling bull was snapped up for $2.8 million at the Mumbai auction in 2014, is estimated to fetch around $1 million this year for a 1981 painting.

With the annual India Art Fair, the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, a busy exhibition calendar, Christie’s annual sale and Sotheby’s decision to set up a regional office in Mumbai, the Indian art market has come a long way from its recession-hit days. And with the belated introduction of a section dedicated to Indian classical artworks this year, India seems to be “pretty high” on Christie’s agenda with a focus on its domestic market.

It’s a landmark year for the London-based auction house as it completes two decades of business in India. The inclusion of classical art at the Mumbai auction comes after the $134 million New York sale of a private collection of Asian art, which included Indian antiquities.

Of the nearly 100 artworks that will be put up for auction on Dec. 15 in Mumbai, the section dedicated to Indian antiquities will include paintings from the ancestral collections of the Bikaner aristocracy and ancient sculptures, including a sandstone figure of Vishnu from Khajuraho.

“There is so much potential in modern and contemporary (art). We are making such baby steps that it’s overwhelming,” said Deepanjana Klein, international head of Christie’s South Asian art department.

“This year we started incorporating antiquities. The company is obviously looking more and more at this region,” she said.

Despite the high expectations, Klein said India is still a conservative market. The culture of buying and collecting is still at a nascent stage, with few speculators.

This conservatism probably stretches to Indian education as well, where the culture of cultivating an interest in art is noticeably absent. While the country has the world’s third largest number of billionaires, it remains a low middle-income economy. Such wide income disparities and the preoccupation with daily sustenance reduces art connoisseurship to an elite minority of non-resident Indians, foreign collectors, institutions and the super rich.

In such a market, the Indian government’s role is restricted to granting permissions, a slow bureaucratic process. And since the export of antiquities is not allowed, for example, the process becomes over-regulated, somewhat explaining the delay in introducing the section on classical art. The antiquities were conspicuous by their absence at the Delhi preview, a sign of the difficulties of moving such artifacts even within the country.

“In Delhi, Kiran Nadar is going back and forth every day with the government to ask them to give her a piece of land on lease to build her museum,” Klein said. “She’s got the track record of doing world-class shows, but our government is not even talking about giving her a piece of land.”

Comparisons with China, where Christie’s started the auction in the same year as India, are hard to ignore.

“We’re not competing with China, that’s a huge market,” said Klein. “The (Chinese) government is proactively incentivising private collectors, helping them bring works back, helping them put museums up.”

With the economic slowdown in China, the crackdown on corruption and lesser speculators, Christie’s sold $65.5 million worth of art in Hong Kong during its six-day long event in November, down from previous years.

India would find it hard to draw level. A Tyeb Mehta painting sold for $2.8 million in Mumbai last year. The Christie’s auction generated $12 million overall.

Untitled painting (1981), Tyeb Mehta

Untitled painting (1981), Tyeb Mehta

Given these “baby steps”, the Indian art economy appears to be competing with itself and breaking its own records.

With the rise of a new generation of art collectors, the Indian market needs support from the government to encourage private buyers, build infrastructure for art events, and organise shows beyond New Delhi and Mumbai besides opening museums in other cities.

“It’s a slow beginning. You would almost look at it as early years,” said Neha Kirpal, founder of the India Art Fair, a yearly carnival in New Delhi that hosts hundreds of artists from around the world.

“But you would see the best of years ahead of us and not behind us,” she said.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan; Follow Ankush on Twitter @Ankush_patrakar and Tony @TonyTharakan. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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