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No longer just a commodity

Over the years the Indian art sales have become celebrated, lucrative events. Last year was the litmus test for the durability of Indian art — amidst declining economic conditions, Christie’s June sale generated Rs 43 crore, writes Pia Gadkari.

india Updated: Jun 26, 2009 14:24 IST

June is a busy month for the art world. After Venice — where the art behemoth, the Biennale opens every other year — the art world decamps to Switzerland for Art Basel, the world’s largest annual art fair, for what has been a five-day prolific shopping spree for the world’s major art buyers. Last week, the spotlight moved to London where the four dominant auction houses — Sotheby’s, Christie’s, Bonham’s and Saffron Art — hosted their annual Indian art sales. At the Sotheby’s sale, Jogen Chowdhury’s ink and pastel work titled ‘Day Dreaming’, fetched a record Rs 2.9 crore (£ 373,250)

Over the years the Indian art sales have become celebrated, lucrative events. Last year was the litmus test for the durability of Indian art — amidst declining economic conditions, Christie’s June sale generated Rs 43 crore (£ 5.4 million). Several works set record prices — notably Francis Newton Souza’s ‘Birth’ sold for Rs 9.6 crore (£ 1.2 million), while Tyeb Mehta and Subodh Gupta achieved personal sales records of Rs 7.8 crore (£ 980,000) and Rs 4.8 crore (£ 600,000) respectively. Sotheby’s, with a strong record of successful sales of Indian art, also holds three Indian auctions every year: March and September in New York, and a sale in London in June. In 2008, all three Indian art sales at Sotheby’s were deemed similarly successful.

The market’s growing recognition of the commercial vitality of contemporary Indian art explains Bonham’s first foray into this category at the same time. In March 2008, Bonham’s held its inaugural auction for West Asian and South Asian art in Dubai in March 2008 and followed its successes there with another sale in London that June. This is a logical product of previous years when a September 2006 Christie’s sale in New York generated Rs 87.4 crore ($ 18 million) and, in 2005, Tyeb Mehta’s ‘Mahisasura’ was the first Indian work of art ever to be sold for more than $ 1 million.

Modern and contemporary Indian art gained real market prominence in the boom years prior to August 2007, although the genre had been developing steadily since the 1950s, after the Progressive Artists Group was formed in Bombay in 1947. India’s growing economic significance through the 1990s and 2000s, coupled with the assertive visibility of a new generation of Indian super-rich international players with a strong interest in acquiring art, has fuelled the demand for Indian art internationally. However, these compelling, short-term conditions may have had the effect of creating an artificial bottleneck in the supply of Indian art to the international market, a consequence of which has been the steep increase in the price of Indian works rather than increased access to it.

Partly, this may be because the main platform for the trade of Indian art outside India has been the auction house. Without an established overseas gallery network and poor international representation for artists by their galleries in India, supply of Indian art to the international market has been restrained and difficult to forecast, relying upon the willingness of art owners to consign work for auction. The arrival of specialist galleries is recent: Aicon, which provided a pioneering gateway to Indian art in the US and Europe, opened in New York in 2002 and in London in 2007. Indian art has made rare appearances at museums in London: Tate Britain displayed F.N. Souza’s work in 2005; and the Serpentine Gallery presented ‘Indian Highway’ through the winter of 2008-09.

Diversifying opportunities to view Indian art in Europe and the US is much needed. Dependence on auction houses as a vehicle for foreign exposure has resulted in the predominance of a group of Modern Indian artists at the expense of other worthy candidates. Furthermore, auctions usually comprise art appearing for resale, rarely showcasing new works to be bought for the first time. Damien Hirst’s audacious auction, ‘Beautiful Inside My Head Forever’, at Sotheby’s in September 2008, (that coincided with the very evening of Lehman Brothers’ collapse) was a controversial and rare exception. Thus, many of India’s talented rising stars find precious few opportunities to exhibit and sell their works outside India. Increasing these outlets will be an important element in sustaining and nourishing international consumption and appreciation for Indian art.

This will be especially important during the current recession. As with other emerging sectors such as Russian art, which performed poorly in the June sales this year, Indian art is experiencing weaker demand as a result of the global recession. Last fortnight’s Christie’s auction generated just half of what the 2008 sale raised across a comparable quantity of lots for sale (modestly surpassing the estimated £ 2 million, although the final total includes the not insignificant buyer’s premium, while the pre-sale estimate does not).

At Sotheby’s Indian art sale on June 16, attendance was low and some works went unsold, including paintings by Souza and Akbar Padamsee; at Christie’s, Manjit Bawa’s work failed to find a buyer. Despite this, feisty bidding wars surrounded Jogen Chowdhury’s evocative ‘Day Dreaming’, sold for Rs 2.9 crore (£373,250) at Sotheby’s, and Ram Kumar’s ‘Benares’ was taken by a private buyer for Rs 1.04 crore (£ 133,250) at Christie’s — more than double the estimated value in both cases. Maithili Parekh of Sotheby’s is optimistic, saying, “previously, art was traded like a commodity. Now real collectors and art lovers are buying”.

Overall, horizons are widening for Indian art abroad. Interest at the museum level is growing, as evidenced by the British Museum’s important new ‘Gardens and Cosmos’ — paintings from the royal collection of Jodhpur. Also, the Victoria & Albert ‘Maharaja’ exhibition opens this autumn. In spring 2010, Paris’ Centre Pompidou will be showcasing a season of contemporary Indian art.

While the market recovers, Indian art can take shelter under lofty European rafters.

Pia Gadkari is a London-based journalist