All that talk of the Indian art market on the downslide seems to be just that - talk. For, at the beginning of the Spring-summer auction season, almost every player, including the new ones, are anticipating a good season. So what if Sotheby's failed to sell a Van Gogh in their most recent sale. Whether in terms of expanding frontiers, exploring new paradigms of art, or seeking out old masters, there is an eye at new records as major works of Indian art come up for sale in the season.
"The market is absolutely buoyant and India will be among the top three markets in the next 10 years," confidently asserts Meher Dadha who has set up one of India's two newest auction houses, Bid & Hammer. It had its first, fairly successful, auction at the end of January in a new centre for art auctions in India, Bangalore, where MF Husain's Shiva got the top price of Rs 39.73 lakh. The other new entrant to the arena, from another arena new to the art auction world - Kolkata, Vikram Bachawat, director, Emami Chisel Art Auction, agrees too. "We've had over 100 visitors register online for our auction, a very encouraging response," he says. And the world's leading auctioneers, Christie's too is upbeat about the international prospects of Indian art. "In 2002, we sold $1.4 million worth, which by 2007 had climbed to $36 million," says its international marketing director, Lisa King. The base prices have risen exponentially - for Chisel Art auction, the base price for Husain's Safdar Hashmi is Rs 2-2.5 crore.
Christie's, which holds the 2005 record for the highest price for an Indian work of art, hopes the upcoming auction on March 20 will top that record. "We have hopes of Ram Kumar's 1975 Vagabond." Given the rising prominence of Indian buyers, Christie's is hosting previews in Mumbai and Delhi for the first time for a single auction, something it plans to do with increased frequency in a bid to reach out to more Indians. Osian's founder-chairman, Neville Tuli agrees. "The market is extremely buoyant, full of promise and new ventures, structures, collaborations, exchange programmes. The public-private sector dialogues will improve radically once mutual trust and respect deepens and each recognises the role of the other and how much faster India can be built with co-operation."
Art Mall, established in Delhi by Naren Bhiku Ram Jain, too plans auctions in future. "Just four or five auction houses are not sufficient for a country as large as India," says Dadha, who admits that the task of setting up was far from easy - involving as it did experts, resources, logistics and clients and above all, a passion for the arts. Nina Pillai of Triveda Arts points to the key role Indian art auction houses can play in the upward movement of prices for Indian art, which are still well below those from top priced works from China or Japan, leave alone Europe or North America. "The majority of buyers for works by Indian artists are still NRIs, especially in London, New York and Dubai," says King. "Though most Indian buyers are buying art from the region, they are also beginning to buy western contemporary art." There is definitely a market as Christie's sold a Husain painting for $ 4,41,600 at its auction last February, while Sotheby's and Bonham's too had considerable success with Indian art. Triveda plans auctions in Dubai and Hongkong. Khushii, an NGO, which has held earlier auctions in Delhi and Mumbai, will have an auction in Dubai.
Is it a coincidence or is there a new phase of corporate interest in the arts? While both the new auction houses have corporate backing, pharma giant Ranbaxy has already entered the art world through Religare, while HCL and Reliance are also said to be in advanced stages of entering the art world. "Auctions are a platform for the secondary market to trade in. It appears that many corporate houses are turning into patrons and investors and some are getting into the business itself, sensing the profits in the possible trade, says Sharan Apparao of Apparao Galleries, one of India's oldest auction houses. "It will also give legitimacy and bring in more competition." The art market has only begun to build its own credible infrastructure, but there is still a long way to go. Adds Tuli: "Many new organisations should spring up, in the hundreds I hope, and each will add to the pool of knowledge, competition and transparency."
However, the recent turmoil on Dalal Street has not left the art world untouched. "The apprehension is whether the market will sustain its current run," says Dadha, whose auction was held the day the market started its downward slide. "We still sold 46% of the works," expressing confidence that the market will remain upbeat as he prepares for his next auction scheduled for June 6, in Bangalore again. "Liquidity is hit during times of turmoil, which affects auctions as well, says Pillai, whose Triveda Arts has its next auction scheduled this Wednesday. She, however, cautions against treating art as just investment. "Art is a tactile investment. There will be hiccups, but in the long run it is on an upward swing," she says.
Pillai points to the facilities the Chinese government has provided in Beijing, saying that India too needs to increase its art infrastructure. She feels collectors must turn at least 10% of their portfolio to auctions. "It's good to sell on a high," she cheekily says. Gallerist Arun Vadehra points out the fact that the Indian art market is still just about 1% of the global market - valued at an estimated $400-$500 million of the global $50 billion market. "We should be able to reach around 6%," he says. Artist SH Raza has a word of caution, saying "we should not overdo ourselves in a bid to raise prices."
The more established auction houses express concern about transparency. "The onus is on the auction house to establish provenance," says Dinesh Wazirani of Saffronart, whose Spring-Summer auction scheduled for March 12-13 has a massive 140 lots up for sale. "Holding an auction or two, and starting an auction house of repute and sustaining an auction house of repute are totally different things," says Tuli. "It is easy to start things in India, very difficult to sustain it with passion, integrity, knowledge development and wealth generating capacity." To boost transparency, Chisel Art has a lock-in period, according to which works of young artists need to be at least three years old, and those by senior artists, five. No artwork sold in an auction over the previous seven years is taken for the auction, and the provenance of each work is part of the information given to prospective bidders.
Auction houses are also looking beyond canvasses. "For our auction, the proportion of paintings and other forms was 50:50 and the sales too were in the same proportion," says Dadha. "Niche areas need to be developed too, and our jewellery auction has done very well, says Wazirani. Christie's too feels that the future could have categories like Indian film memorabilia joining their 'Iconic' sales in London and New York.
Looks like the blues of the second half of last year look to be left behind as the auctions hope to break new frontiers.