2023: The year Indian art came into its own

Over the next eight decades, The Story Teller made its way to other owners before finally coming back into the art market this September, at an auction held by Mumbai–based art gallery SaffronArt. And there, the masterpiece fetched a stunning 61.8 crore, becoming the most expensive Indian artwork sold to date.

It isn’t just Sher-Gil’s work that has drawn such a commanding price this year. Sayed Haider Raza’s Gestation and FN Souza’s Hunger have also broken records, as have works by other artists. Indeed, 2023 could be the biggest year ever for modern Indian art. Rough estimates suggest that leading auction houses AstaGuru, Christie’s, Pundole’s, Saffron Art and Sotheby’s have held sales of modern Indian art totalling more than $138 million, or 1,150 crore, since January, with more auctions to come. Beyond the auction circuit, galleries, too, have been experiencing a record breaking year.

Art galleries attribute the growth of Indian masters to multiple factors. These predominantly include a healthy domestic economy, a growing buyer base of high-net worth individuals, the availability of good quality art, and professionally run galleries and auction houses promoting them. All of this has led to some very significant sales of modern Indian art in the last 18 months.

What is becoming clearer with each auction is that works that are fresh to the market, with impeccable and historically relevant provenance, command a substantial premium when they appear on the auction block, says gallerist Dadiba Pundole.

To be sure, the valuation of art involves the consideration of various aspects, such as the artist’s identity, the period in which the work was created, its size, subject matter, condition, exhibition history, and inclusion in notable publications, say gallerists. These factors collectively determine the artwork’s price. Additionally, appraisers examine the auction records of similar paintings by the same artist, of similar scale and period, to establish a potential price range for the work in question.

However, unlike, say, the valuation of real estate, the valuation of art is not an exact science. Moreover, unpredictable factors can influence buyers’ bidding behaviour at auctions, leading to unexpectedly high prices. And that perhaps is what happened with The Story Teller, which Sher-Gil herself said was one of her 12 most important works.

In a social media post following the exhibition featuring ‘The Story Teller’, Dinesh Vazirani, SaffronArt’s founder, said that it was “amazing that Indians finally want to own a slice of their history and culture and that they are recognizing its value now”.

Speaking to Mint, Minal, his wife and co-founder of the gallery, said the sale of this particular work was an important milestone in the market. “Indian art is at an upward inflection point for several reasons, including an expanded buyer base, increasing wealth levels, greater global visibility through institutional exhibitions, and art fairs,” she said.

A bumper year

image₹51.75 crore, including a buyer’s premium, at Mumbai’s iconic art gallery and auction house, Pundole’s. ” title=”Sayed Haider Raza’s Gestation. The work sold for ₹51.75 crore, including a buyer’s premium, at Mumbai’s iconic art gallery and auction house, Pundole’s. “>

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Sayed Haider Raza’s Gestation. The work sold for 51.75 crore, including a buyer’s premium, at Mumbai’s iconic art gallery and auction house, Pundole’s. (Pundole’s)

The Indian art market has grown steadily for some years following the 2008 global economic meltdown, when a lot of pieces came up for auction owing to the economic situation around the world. When a market is doing well, people also know it’s a great time to sell, and as a consequence, good artworks have been coming in for sale. Currently, progressive artists and modern Indian art are the ones largely generating high prices. The art market has seen records being set even for categories such as works on paper.

Less than three weeks before SaffronArt made its historic sale of The Story Teller, another artwork had seized the crown to become India’s most expensive artwork. Raza’s Gestation, sold for 51.75 crore, including a buyer’s premium, at Mumbai’s iconic art gallery and auction house, Pundole’s.

In the same auction, two other records were also broken. Souza’s Hunger sold for 34.5 crore, setting a world auction record for the artist. Tyeb Mehta’s sculpture Two Heads also fetched 14.95 crore, marking the world auction record for a modern Indian sculpture. Another Mehta work, an oil on board titled Bull on Rickshaw, sold for 10 crore.

Since 2018, South Asian art sales at auction house Sotheby’s in London have realized $81.7 million. This season in particular was strong with its October sale showcasing Bhupen Khakar’s People at Mosque, which made its auction debut, and numerous artists, whose works set new records, including Rabindranath Tagore and Manjit Bawa.

Bawa’s untitled artwork, depicting the Hindu deity Shiva, fetched $2.8 million (about 24 crore)—a record for the artist. Six bidders competed in the bidding, which was created at the pinnacle of Bawa’s career and showcases his unique approach to figuration.

In the auction house’s March sale in New York, a record was also set for M.F. Husain. The South Asia art auction raked in $6.9 million from bidding, with 84% of the lots selling above estimate at auction. The October auction had a 99% sell-through rate.

In an exclusive chat with Mint, Ishrat Kanga, Sotheby’s South Asia market head, said, “People are spending larger amounts on art and every single season the world record for a particular price paid for South Asian art is being broken.”

The Pundole’s Glenbarra sale saw some of those records broken. The works of other artists such as Arpita Singh and Jogen Chowdhury drove art prices this year, all of which were well regarded compositions with pristine provenance.

Who’s collecting?

image₹24 crore recently, a record for the artist. ” title=”Manjit Bawa’s untitled work was painted in 1995, over 10 years before the artist’s death, and reimagines Shiva in a contemporary context. It fetched about ₹24 crore recently, a record for the artist. “>

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Manjit Bawa’s untitled work was painted in 1995, over 10 years before the artist’s death, and reimagines Shiva in a contemporary context. It fetched about 24 crore recently, a record for the artist. (Sotheby’s)

There are a lot of buyers, but show me the collectors,” quipped the popular sculptor and million-dollar master painter Tyeb Mehta in 2005, in a candid chat with art critic and curator Uma Nair, just four years before he passed away. Mehta had a point, implies Nair, who is an authority on Indian art. “Great collectors are not born; they grow in the journeys that they carve for their own insight and observation,” she says with a smile.

Nair has spent three decades studying Indian art, and spent time with the country’s greatest artists, whose works are making headlines around the world today with their sales. And that seismic shift fills her with a sense of pride. “It is exciting to be an observer of the art market right now,” she told Mint.

Certainly, a lot has changed since 2005. While there is no official confirmation about who bought The Story Teller, the buzz in artist circles is that the painting was acquired by an Indian art collector and philanthropist who runs a museum.

Today, collectors in India largely fall into three categories: The first is serious collectors, who have a philatelic vision and buy art as an investment. Then, there are those who buy art because they’re eyeing appreciation in value. The third category is art dealers who want to quickly sell the art.

Jaiveer Johal, a logistics business owner in Chennai, started collecting modern contemporary Indian art about a decade ago, when he was 28. He began widening his collection across the board, moving swiftly from modern to contemporary to classical artworks. Today, Johal, now 36, calls his collection “aesthetically focused”. The collection includes works by SH Raza and FN Souza and elements of classical art, including sculptures and miniature paintings such as Gandhara and Vijayanagara period sculptures.

“When I look at the Indian art market in its absolute sense, it is expensive. But it is far more affordable than any other art in the world, which could also be why newer and younger art collectors are now drawn to the market,” he said. Johal cites the example of a recent art sale hosted by Sotheby’s in New York last month, which raked in $400 million. A Pablo Picasso from 1932 titled Femme à la Montre achieved a groundbreaking $139 million at the auction. That sale is pretty much the value of the entire Indian art market, quips Johal.

A lot of the interest in Indian art is being driven by younger collectors. Many were initially spurred by time on their hands as well as disposable wealth that needed to be spent during the covid pandemic in 2020. They include people exposed to art through their families as well as first-time collectors.

Around 40% of buyers at Sotheby’s Asian art auctions are now from India or other parts of South Asia, with the rest being collectors of Indian origin globally. “I don’t think this happened all of a sudden. What ended up happening was that there was so much uncertainty after the pandemic began, people were not sure what was going to happen with the market. So, our very first auction after the pandemic was quite successful and then pretty much every auction built on that year-on-year,” said Kanga.

Another iconic British auction house, Christie’s, gets many calls from its collectors whose children now want to get into collecting. They want the next generation to take courses on art appreciation, so they know where to begin.

In a conversation with Mint, Sonal Singh, managing director of Christie’s Indian department, said India is now following the global trend in art collection. The auction house has seen increased engagement from younger buyers, with millennials accounting for 31% of all buyers this year, reflecting a growing interest in art among the younger generation.

Christie’s is expanding its presence in India and plans to hold an exhibition in the country in the near future, though not a full auction. The auction house is optimistic about the Indian art market because of its potential for growth based on the economy becoming stronger, and people spending more on art and luxury collectibles.

Asset building

image₹34.5 crore at Pundole’s recently, setting a world auction record for the artist.” title=”FN Souza’s Hunger sold for ₹34.5 crore at Pundole’s recently, setting a world auction record for the artist.”>

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FN Souza’s Hunger sold for 34.5 crore at Pundole’s recently, setting a world auction record for the artist. (Pundole’s)

Art, watches, and luxury handbags have remained the most sought-after investment of passion this year for super-rich Indians, according to a recent global survey. Over half the ultra-high-net-worth individuals (UHNWIs) in the country will purchase these assets, real estate consultancy Knight Frank said in its ‘Attitudes Survey’. And 4% of the UHNWI wealth is expected to pursue assets driven by passion rather than monetary gains.

To be sure, the Indian art market may never grow the way the Chinese art market did between 2000 and 2011, when it became one of the largest in the world. But while the Chinese art market has plenty of styles, narratives and experimental art across genres, the bubble of 2000-2011 was driven by economic conditions and markets opening up. However, this boom didn’t last. The factors that drove prices were great exhibitions and the widening of interest. India’s market has grown far more cautiously, even in years when there could have been distress selling.

“I think we are often too hard on the Indian market, condemning it as a market of speculators and not collectors. I no longer think this is true. India may benefit from the contraction within the Chinese market, as India may be seen as a better market for mid-term growth. If international buyers switch their attention from the Chinese art market to the Indian market, then India could expand even faster than expected,” said Rob Dean, modern and classical Indian art specialist, Pundole’s.

The coming year is likely to see India’s women artists step up at exhibitions and auctions, and set records. For now, the fact that the Indian modern and contemporary world record belongs to Amrita Sher-Gil is something to savour.

(Note: all prices mentioned are inclusive of gallery commissions.)

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