Indian art: A quick primer on the market

Amin Jaffer, International Director of Asian Arts
Amin Jaffer, International Director of Asian Arts

As the Indian art calendar becomes busier than ever, Christie's International Director of Asian Arts Amin Jaffer offers a quick primer on the market

By Sujata Assomull

Published: Thu 19 Jan 2017, 4:56 PM

Last updated: Fri 20 Jan 2017, 2:42 PM

The arts scene in India is an ever-burgeoning one. The 9th edition of the India Art Fair will begin on February 2, while the 3rd edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is currently in full swing and receiving critical claim from the press, both at home and internationally. Recently, Christie's too held its 4th India Sale in India - and while 30 out of the 73 works displayed remained unsold on the main day, there were still some pieces that sold at record prices, such as those by VS Gaitonde (approx. US$2.2 million). A lot by the same artist sold the previous year for US$4.4 million. So, the question is: while Indian art may be garnering critical acclaim, is it still a commercially sound investment?
Amin Jaffer, International Director of Asian Arts for Christie's, is considered by many to be the ultimate authority on the subject. He joined Christie's from London's Victoria & Albert Museum and is also the author of Made for Maharajahs and Beyond Extravagance. This year, at Goa's Serendipity Arts Festival, Christie's - under Jaffer's watch - put together a special 'Collector's Conclave', suggesting the international auction house's commitment to Indian art. It has a robust international calendar planned for 2017 around Indian art, with events planned in cities like New York and London. An interview with Jaffer offers a market overview:
At Christie's 4th India Sale, works by VS Gaitonde sold for a record price for the second year in a row. Is he now the artist to beat?
Actually, Gaitonde has led our Indian art sales three out of four times in the past. He set a new world auction record in the first year at $3.8 million, followed by a new record price of $4.4 million in 2015; this remains unbeaten. Christie's has been holding sales in the category for the past 20 years and works by Gaitonde have been very much sought after by the larger collector's community. The recent retrospective of Gaitonde's oeuvre at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, followed by the show at the Peggy Guggenheim museum in Venice, has certainly helped expose him to an even wider circle of admirers.
Lots at the Christie's India Sale did not seem to sell for as much as they did last year. To a lay person, this might not seem like a good sign.
The 4th India Sale took place under a different climate. The recent demonetisation that India went through certainly impacted the sale outcome. Nevertheless, we presented two large private collections, offering artworks unseen on the market for decades (always a magnet of interest for true collectors), as well as a strong selection of classical sculptures. The interest for these works was well noticed.
Art sales all over the world have slowed down. With the ongoing demonetisation in India, is the market for Indian art slower than usual?
I'd argue the opposite. The art market in the second half of 2016 regained momentum and showed that collectors still purchased unique and exceptional works of art that we offered throughout the world: in Mumbai, Dubai, London and New York.
Many feel Indian art (especially contemporary Indian art) does not live up to expectations.
There are many great initiatives in place to promote and develop Indian contemporary art, inside India as well as internationally. Just look at the upcoming India Art Fair and the recent investment from The MCH Group that owns Art Basel, which indicates a new focus on Indian contemporary art and its market. After our recent sale in Mumbai, the entire specialist team flew to Goa to hold a collector's conclave at the Serendipity Arts Festival, alongside Kochi-Muziris Biennale, spotlighting the greatness and diversity of contemporary art making in India.
How would you define modern and contemporary art, and is modern art always a safer bet?
Contemporary artworks are those created in the last 25-30 years. Anything else can be considered as modern works of art. Between the two, I would argue that a modern work of art has a traceable history on the art market - including its price development, which gives many people reassurance. Discovering contemporary art, however, has a particular edge to it and you, the collector, can support living artists with your purchases, meet the artists and be part of the future of Indian contemporary art.
Christie's has a robust calendar for Indian art this year. Does this mean you think Indian contemporary art is yet to reach its full potential?
Since 1995, we have been holding stand-alone auctions for South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art in London and New York. The Mumbai auctions are the most recent to have been added to the auction calendar since 2013. Each year, we hold four major auctions in the category, with one international specialist team responsible for these auctions. This sustained support and development of Indian art and its market by the leading art business should be proof enough that there is growth in the market and room to make contemporary Indian art even more appreciated throughout the world. Of late, there have been many art events around Indian art too - all of which are a great testimony to the importance art and culture have within the country, as well as a sign of the international importance they have gained globally.
The Kochi Biennale has received a lot of praise, especially this third edition. What were your impressions of the Biennale?
Kochi provides a fresh, original platform for contemporary art. The offering is rich and varied, presented in an evocative setting. I was impressed by the range of experience and forms of expression displayed.
If someone is looking at Indian art for the first time, what would your advice be?
Start training the eye by regularly attending gallery shows and museums. This should be complemented by a knowledge of the biographies and movements of the artists that capture your interest. Attending the previews of any auction is a good training field. Since these are open to the public, they allow you to connect with the specialists and view works of art in a more approachable way than in a museum.
And with purchases, should you go with what you love or what the experts feel is right?
The first auctions you attend should be as an observer, to learn about the mechanics of auctions and understand the market. When you're ready to start bidding, set yourself a target and do not go over it. A difficult task that you may regret at times, but a discipline that will help you make the right choices. Buying art is a very personal undertaking. The advice of experts can add value for sure, but you cannot go wrong if you buy what you like at the budget set in the first place!

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