Contemporary Indian art - an explosive market

In the mid 1990s, strong economic growth in India flushed out a new generation of collectors looking to invest in the art of fellow Indians. Today, demand is global and rising, fuelled by a very speculative environment with tempting opportunities for quick in and out trading. The new stars of Indian art are sought after in Hong-Kong and Dubai, London and New York, New Delhi and Paris.
Galvanised by specialist auctions, contemporary Indian art has made spectacular gains: in January 2008, the sector’s price index was up by 830% over the decade!

Flagship auctions of Indian art never fail to feature established names like Francis Newton Souza, Tyeb Mehta and Sayed Haider Raza. All born in the 1920s, they traced a path to contemporary art with erudite but uninhibited work that was stamped with Indian culture while owing much to Western art. The international success of this artistic generation opened a breach. And the young Indian scene, artists born between the 1950s and 1970s, swept through it. At the top of the list, apart from media stars like Anish Kapoor and Sudodh Gupta, there are Atul Dodiya, Ravinder REDDY, Chintan UPADHYAY, Shibu Natesan or Santosh TV… all have made over six figure sums at auction.

Anish Kapoor, born in 1954, is a perfect illustration of soaring prices for contemporary Indian art. Consider, for example, his sculpture Mother as a ship: a motherly form of more than 2 metres, draped in a blue pigment that calls up infinite stretches of sea and sky. It is a work of meditation that typifies Kapoor’s work. It was put up for auction three times between 1998 et 2007, first at Christie’s London where it fetched GBP42,000, or USD 72,000. In May 2007, also at Christie’s, it went for USD 650,000 in New York. Kapoor was introduced to the secondary market twenty years ago and enjoys an international audience. He is unquestionably the most expensive contemporary Indian artist today. His rise accelerated in November 2006 when Sotheby’s auctioned the Vanthournout collection. The alabaster sculpture on sale went under the hammer at USD 2m, five times its estimate. Since then, Kapoor has made 5 other sales over the million dollar mark with the maximum, USD 2.5m, for another alabaster sculpture (14 November 2007, Sotheby’s NY). Nevertheless, not all his works are prohibitively expensive: small sculptures produced in limited series, go for between EUR 3,000 and 10,000. In the last two years, speculative overbidding for a few elected contemporary artists has been confirmed. In 2005 for example, Atul Dodiya broke through the USD 100,000 level for the first time (The Mocking, Sotheby’s NY, 20 September 2005). Two years later, his painting Lodging in Somnath, bought for the equivalent of USD 5,000 in 1995 (GBP 3,200, Christie’s London) was sold for HKD 3m, i.e. more than USD 385,800!

Unlike Atul Dodiya, Sudodh Gupta, 44, was unknown in international auction houses three years before. Today, he is so famous that he is considered as the Indian Damien Hirst! In 2005, Sotheby’s sold his painting Fisherman for USD 13,000. By 2007, his paintings had easily risen ten times in price and were selling for between EUR 130,000 and 280,000 on average. He is enjoying global success and is sought after in Hong Kong, London or New York, and also in France. In fact, his new record was made in Paris, at Artcurial on 3 April 2008, for Vehicle for the seven Seas… The installation, which transforms a trolley and suitcases into precious objects, was sold for EUR 425,000, more than three times its estimate.

Collectors are ready to invest in young artists on the secondary market who are starting out like Shibu Natesan (born in 1966) and Santosh TV (1968). The young Santosh TV for example, went down well with collectors from his very first New York sale, organised by Sotheby’s in September 2007. The painting that had a high estimate of USD 30,000 took the bidding to USD 170,000…Two months later, Traces of an ancient error II went for ten times its low estimate (HKD 3.2m, or more than USD 410,000).

After the successful sales at Christie’s NY on 20 March 2008 and Phillips de Pury & Company London on 3 April 2008, the next auction of Indian art will be at Sotheby’s London on 2 May.

Art Market Insight – April 2008

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