India’s Art Market Explodes

India’s slumbering modern art market came alive Thursday night at a Christie’s auction in Mumbai when astonishing prices were achieved totaling $15.45 million, roughly doubling estimates.

Collectors say this was the result of extensive marketing by a big Christie's team, the excitement and personal visibility of a live auction. plus strong provenance - just over half the 83 lots were collected by the late Kekoo Gandhy, who championed young and later famous artists like M.F.Husain, Vasudeo S.Gaitonde and Ram Kumar in the 1940s and then ran Mumbai’s Chemould art gallery.

http://www.christies.com/sales/south-asian-art-mumbai-december-2013/

One of Gandhy’s Gaitonde works set the auction off to a spectacular start as the first lot. An untitled early landscape of just 9x11 inches, it beat the estimated price range of US$13,000-19,400 by around ten times and went for USS$157,200 including buyer’s premium. It was a gouache with pen and ink on card, it had a Chemould Frames label on the reverse side.

Another large Gaitonde – an oil on canvas abstract from a different owner – produced the highest auction sale price of US$3.3 million or US$3.79 including the premium, roughly tripling the lowest estimate. This was the highest price ever paid in India for a modern work of art and was a world auction record for the artist. In the past decade, India’s leading modern artists of the same vintage such as M.F.Husain, F.N.Souza, Tyeb Mehta and S.H.Rzaza have all had their day topping Indian art prices, and now Gaitonde, who died in 2001 aged 77, is reaching the same price levels. The Guggenheim in New York has a Gaitonde retrospective next year and that will no doubt persuade more collectors to bring more of his works to the market, sustaining high prices.

The second highest bid of US$2.8 million came for a Tyeb Mehta’ acrylic on canvas in his dramatic Mahisasura series. These works are always strong sellers, and this one depicted the Devi in her most potent form as a lion locked in a struggle with the buffalo-demon. This was the first time that two Indian works had been sold at above US$3 million in the same auction.

Hugo Weihe, the auctioneer and Christie’s international director of Asian Art, said that this shows the market “has matured” and that good prices could be obtained for top quality works, with collectors distinguishing the best works from lesser ones. This has been his usual line during the past five years when the Indian art market has been hit by the international economic slowdown, but he said to me this morning that last night’s results prove that new high prices are paid for best works – which they were.

Christies arranged for 30 or so international collectors to be in Mumbai for the sale but Weihe new buyers are also appearing – about 100 people registered for the first time for the auction. There were also buyers making bids by telephone and on the internet – the auction was accessible live on Christie’s web site.

The emergence of new buyers is in line with the experience of the Delhi Art Gallery (DAG) which, having recently opened a new outlet in the old Fort business district of Mumbai, is finding that younger generations of old business families are beginning to buy. Significantly, they are going for the established ‘moderns’ like those featured in this auction rather than risking their money on Indian‘s contemporary artists who are still fairing badly after a serious slump in prices.

The DAG is unusual in that it has large collections of modern art and stages big exhibitions that are well backed up with art books and literature. “It is a one stop shop for buying modern art,” says Amrita Jhaveri, a collector who opened Christie’s representative office in Mumbai 20 years ago and herself had a successful sale of part of her Indian collection totaling US$6.7 million with Sotheby’s in New York last March.

Together the DAG and Christie's have given the Indian art market a significant boost at a time when many smaller galleries have been downsizing or closing in both Mumbai and Delhi. Along with Saffronart, India’s leading internet-based art auctioneer, they have shown the results that can be achieved if a significant effort is put into involving potential buyers and searching for the best works – Christie’s had 50 staff working in India on the auction.

Galleries and auction houses with less energy and cachet are finding times hard and are rarely willing to cut prices sufficiently for lesser works. “If people don’t make the effort, they can’t complain that the market is flat,” says Kishore Singh of the DAG.

Collectors were also wondering today whether it is easier for an international auctioneer such as Christie’s to sell in Mumbai than in Delhi because there are more people and business houses there prepared to pay with “white” money, as opposed to the black money sloshing around in Delhi.

Whether that is correct or not, what is sure is that Christie’s yesterday showed that the cachet of an international auctioneer, plus extensive marketing for top quality works brings in top prices.

(John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s India correspondent. He blogs at ridingtheelephant.wordpress.com, which is also carried on the right side of the Asia Sentinel site.)