Creating a place for Indians in global sales

China and India are our main focuses
for growth in the next few years

Tara Kilachand

Asia focus: Christie’s Lisa King intends to focus on India and China for growth in the next few years. (Photo: Zack Canepari/ Mint)

Mumbai: As international managing director of Christie’s, Lisa King has overseen some of the auction house’s most successful sales in recent years, including the landmark 2005 bid for Tyeb Mehta’s Mahishasura, which sold for Rs6.96 crore. In India for the preview of the 20 March New York auction of South Asian contemporary and modern art, King spoke to Mint about the broadening tastes of the Indian buyer. Edited excerpts:

In 2007, there seemed to be a correction in Indian modern and contemporary art prices. Are you expecting a further drop?

We’re not. There has been a slight correction, but we take the lead from the pieces we have in the London sales, it’s a similar sort of market. And those have done quite well, so no, we don’t think it’s going to adjust any more. We were very positive about contemporary sales in India—I think what we’ll see is a stabilization for a while. But top works will always do well.
A look at Christie’s history with India

There’s been a lot of press coverage about how the economy hasn’t really affected art auction prices. Do you think the Indian bourses’ performance will affect bidding?

Again, I don’t think it will because we’ve had the precedent from what’s happened in the rest of the world. I think the other thing is that when there’s a lot of uncertainty in the financial market, art is always seen as a good investment opportunity and as bit of a safe haven.

India and China are compared in almost every sector. How does India’s art market compare with that of China’s?

China and India are our main focuses for growth in the next few years. We’re very keen to invest in both markets. In China, we’ve got some artists who’ve reached fantastic prices, now being sold in major sales in London and New York. What we want to do with Indian artists now is bring them to a level where we should be placing them in our international sales, not only in our contemporary and modern sales, but our major evening sales in London and New York.

Are there areas where India is still catching up, where you think artists and particularly collectors are still lagging behind their peers from other parts of the world?

I don’ think you can say that. We’ve seen a real rise in the profile in Indian art in the last two or three years. There was the world record with the Tyeb Mehta work in September 2005. We have clients investing in Chinese contemporary art who are now looking at Indian contemporary,so it’s reached a level where collectors are seeing Indian contemporary as of interest to them, perhaps in addition to Chinese contemporary and European contemporary.

Indian art has gone global, but most collectors still seem to be of Indian origin. Why do you think their appeal hasn’t broadened?

I think it has. We’ve seen some very good assessors in our Hong Kong sale. NRIs (non-resident Indians) are buying these works of art. What we hope to do is continue to show that and expose more of these works to a wider audience. I think the important thing is to expose it internationally—to take the mature artists and put them on the international level, by taking them out of the Indian category and putting them in the general artist category.

What does it take for an artist to be deemed auction-worthy?

To be honest, it depends from artist to artist. There’s not really a time to say that an artist has matured. The primary factors are the artists, and dealers if sold through them. Damien Hirst, for example, came on to the auction arena very early on. I think it depends on when a combination of the artist and market has matured, and as I said, it varies from artist to artist.

As India’s economy soars, do you find that Indian buyers are investing in art from other countries?

It’s starting. Majority of the current buyers are Indians and NRI buyers, but we are starting to see people who have been in the art world for some time, who are exposed to new artists on the block and who forget about whether they’re Indian or not, and start buying other artists. First of all, we have got to get people exposed to the artists—people tend to gravitate to their own culture and own artists and then comes a point when they broaden. We’ve seen that in the Chinese market, and it’s starting to happen in India. We brought some Chinese contemporary art to India. And we want to bring other kinds of art to India soon.

With all attention focused on modern and contemporary, what’s happening with ancient South Asian art?

We’re still very much committed to that, and it is a significant part of our sale schedule. We have important sales coming up in New York, where we will have some masterpieces of traditional decorative pieces that are quite stunning. There is more generally a huge amount of focus on modern and contemporary art, but we do very solid and strong business in other categories. They’ve been steady and actually risen, just as contemporary art has risen in the last few years. They tend to be very solid in terms of performance.

Do you collect Indian art?

I don’t collect, but I’m starting to get more involved. The only trouble is the artists I’d love to collect are priced very highly. I’d love to have a couple of Razas, but they’re about $200,000-300,000 (Rs80 lakh-1.2 crore). I wish I’d bought them when they were priced more cheaply.
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