From Husain to Picasso, the Indian buyer is getting eclectic

After years of selling Indian art to affluent NRIs, international auction houses are now looking to expand the market to Indians at home.

After years of selling Indian art to affluent NRIs, international auction houses are now looking to expand the market to Indians at home. Neelam Raaj spoke to Edward Gibbs, chairman and head of the India department at Sotheby's London, and Yamini Mehta, senior director for South Asian art, about the changing tastes of the Indian collector.

Your first India office is opening in Mumbai next month. Is there now an India auction on the cards?

 EG: We're certainly listening to the needs of our clients, and at the moment we are bringing a series of travelling exhibitions, lectures and other bespoke events. In the future, auctions are a strong possibility. Indians have become more active in our international sales. Just last year, there were 25-30% more Indian buyers.

You recently described Indians as buyers and not sellers. Is it difficult to make them part with their works?

 EG: I stand by that. Indians are primarily buyers. Indian clients start with items of cultural heritage, transition into luxury categories such as jewellery and watches and then trophy pieces like impressionist and modern paintings. There has been a five-fold increase in Indian buyers in 2015 in the jewellery and impressionist-modern categories.

Have Indians taken a shine to jewellery auctions?
EG: If you look at a five-year span from 2010-2015, Indian buyers have bought and bid $400 million in jewellery alone in our global sales. Some look for stones, others for heirlooms and yet others shop for weddings. There is no typical buyer but they are very active in the top end and are driving global sales.

Has the Indian art market recovered from the slump post 2008, especially contemporary art?
YM: There have been multi-million-dollar prices for the modernists like V S Gaitonde, S H Raza etc. Even mid-career artists are getting more visibility. There's a collector in Ohio who is going to showcase Sudarshan Shetty, Subodh Gupta and Bharti Kher at the Pizzuti museum later this year. Nasreen Mohamedi is having a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new space which was formerly the Whitney. It's such a coup that this brand new space will open with an Indian artist. Come summer, Bhupen Khakar will be featured at the Tate. So Indian artists are beginning to be shown in new places.
With modern artists so much in demand, isn't it tough to get your hands on that special piece that can be the star at an auction. Aren't there just that many Gaitondes or Razas?
EG: You have to scale the mountain every time. But it's a challenge we relish. We are like hunter-gatherers, looking for trophies, and the next cover lot. This time we're very fortunate, and we have sourced a Gaitonde for the South Asia sale in March that's become a talking point.
YM: It's the largest work he's ever done on canvas, and was initially done for Air India. It has that airy feel, and a sense of space and eternity. It eventually didn't go to Air India and ended up with another artist-collector called Bal Chhabra who supported many of these artists. Chhabra parted with works like Raza's Maa but this was the one piece that he didn't want to part with in his lifetime.

Edward, you're an expert in classical Indian art. Are miniatures a good investment bet?
The miniature market is extremely buoyant. In October 2015, the collection of a Londoner, Sven Gahlin, which included many miniatures went on sale. It was a 95% sell-through rate. There are a lot of new buyers from India. We see some collectors of modern and contemporary looking at it seriously as they expand their collections to the classical period. It's a niche area and the quality is fabulous. Compared with other areas of the global art market, they do represent very good value for money.
Indians have always had a comfort level with art from their own country. Is that changing and are they open to looking beyond their borders?
YM: As people are travelling and becoming more global in their mindset, you'll have all kinds of eclecticism in collecting. Even here you can have a home that looks completely western in its decor or completely traditional or a mix of both. So you have people who have an M F Husain and a Damien Hirst on their walls. There are several Indian collectors who buy top names in western art like Picasso and Van Gogh.

Any other highlight of the South Asia sale?

YM: There's a wonderful Amrita Sher-Gil titled In the Garden. This comes from the Hungarian side of her family. It was painted in her grandmother's garden. It has influences from Bruegel, Gaugin and Cezanne and elements of Indian miniatures such as the multiple perspectives.

The recent India Art Fair changed its focus to art from the subcontinent this time. How do you see the South Asian art scene shaping up?

YM: India is still dominant but new markets are coming up. After the India Art Fair, collectors and curators have headed to the Dhaka Art Summit which is going on as we speak, and this time it has big international artists like Tino Sehgal taking part. A Lahore biennale is also in the works. Sri Lanka is doing quite well, especially works from the 43 group. In fact, we have an early work by Senaka Senanayake, one of Sri Lanka's best artists, in the New York sale.

Credits - Neelam Raaj | TNN | Feb 6, 2016, 10.20 PM IST

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