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Record-breaking sales animate the Indian art market during the pandemic

Modern masters, traditional buyers and tech money have combined to make an energised Indian art market a safe bet in these uncertain times.

July 17, 2021 / 04:08 AM IST
Artist Tanya Goel's 'Mechanisms 7' (2019).

Artist Tanya Goel's 'Mechanisms 7' (2019).

Art galleries across the country are slowly springing back to life, shifting gear from virtual shows to physical exhibitions. Auction houses too have left the hybrid model - virtual and physical auctions - behind to return to live action. Many galleries have opened in Mumbai, and in the national capital, a new group show featuring artists like Anju Dodiya, Arpita Singh and Shilpa Gupta will open next week - from July 21, 2021.

The return of artists and artworks to the galleries and auctions to live events coincide with an upbeat Indian art market that has survived a distressed economy during the pandemic. "Our art market is doing exceedingly well. All the auctions have done well," says artist Bose Krishnamachari. "The art market did good business last year too when exhibitions had gone online," adds Krishnamachari, who is also the president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation.

'In the Ladies' Enclosure' 'In the Ladies' Enclosure'

At least three record-setting sales of modern Indian art during the Covid-19 health crisis have provided some exciting moments for the art scene in the country. This week's sensational sale of Amrita Sher-Gil’s In the Ladies’ Enclosure (1938) for $5.14 million (Rs 37.8 crore) at the Saffronart auction has underlined the confidence of investors in the Indian art market. The price was the highest for a Sher-Gil painting and the second-highest for an Indian artwork. The Sher-Gil sale followed the $5.14 million (Rs 35.5 crore) bid for an untitled oil on canvas by V.S. Gaitonde in September 2020 and the March 2021 sale of another Gaitonde painting for $5.5 million (Rs 39.98 crore), the highest ever for an Indian artwork in an auction.

Market and Modernists

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"We have been able to record some of our most successful and notable sales of modern Indian art during this period," says Dinesh Vazirani, co-founder of Saffronart. "It’s no secret that the pandemic has thrown constant challenges to nearly every sector across the world. Fortunately, the Indian art market has managed to fare exceptionally well during this period. Instead of sitting back, the art community has worked with great focus to keep people engaged by adapting to the changed times," adds Vazirani, who co-founded Saffronart with wife Minal two decades ago.

The online and physical auctions of Saffronart this summer achieved combined sales of $11.36 million (Rs 83.55 crore), revealing the vigour and vitality of the Indian art market. Among the works that went under the hammer during July 13-14 were F.N. Souza's 1956 untitled work that went for $685,714 (Rs 5.04 crore) and S.H. Raza's Sansarii, which received a winning bid of $360,000 (Rs 2.6 crore). "We have conducted triple the number of auctions between April 2020 to April 2021, as compared to the preceding year," says Vazirani. "The number of lots sold in 2020 was nearly double the number sold in 2019."

"It is phenomenal. We are proud that Saffronart is helping expand the market in the country," says Nature Morte gallery's Aparajita Jain about the auction that has impressed both galleries and art enthusiasts. Jain believes the Indian art market has outperformed nearly all other markets during the pandemic. "There is a renewed buoyancy in the demand for Indian art."

A variety of factors have contributed to the impressive performance of the art market during a health emergency. Traditional buyers and collectors have been joined in the last two years by a band of new entrants to the art market who fancy artworks as a safe bet in today's uncertain times. "The tech money, which has created new billionaires and millionaires, is flowing into the art market," says Jain, who founded Terrain.art, one of the first blockchain-powered online platforms in Indian art market, in March 2021.

"The non-availability of masters is a basic reason for the market responding well to such paintings," explains Krishnamachari about the record bid for the Sher-Gil work. "Rare works attract traditional buyers who wait for them to pop up in auctions," adds the artist, who curated Lokame Tharavadu (The World is One Family) exhibition by the Kochi Biennale Foundation in Alappuzha, Kerala, which opened in April 2021. "There is certainly tech money coming into the Indian art market," agrees Krishnamachari. "There are many from Silicon Valley who invest in Indian art."

Read more: 'The National Museum is an archive of time, it is inhuman to erase its history': artist and curator Bose Krishnamachari

Art and society

"Artists haven't stopped working during the pandemic," says Delhi-based artist Sumedh Rajendran. "While we work inside our studios, we are also travelling more and more inside in pursuit of creativity to address the issues facing contemporary society," adds Rajendran, a sculptor who will mount his first exhibition of paintings in Pune next month.

The reason art has remained in the plans of the people during the pandemic, Rajendran believes, is the eagerness to see things clearly while the world has lost focus. "The art market will not be affected by a pandemic or a recession," he adds. "Art is more important when the society is struggling and in trouble."

Many in the art world are bemused by the interest shown by the collectors in the past one-and-half years. "It is surprising that people are investing in art even during the pandemic," says Krishnamachari, who has seen several works from his Alappuzha exhibition - the largest art show in the country with 267 artists participating - already bought by enthusiastic collectors.

'And all the while the benevolent slept' (2008) by Bharti Kher. 'And all the while the benevolent slept' (2008) by Bharti Kher.

Investing in art

"There couldn’t be a better time to invest in Indian art," beams Vazirani. "If you look at the figures, they are a clear indication of the critical point the art market is positioned at right now. The value of works by modern masters like a Gaitonde or a Raza or a Sher-Gil (and so many more) are a few steps short of the level they were at when the art market was at its peak in 2007-08," he adds.

"There is always a good time for a great buy. And more so in a time of tiring tentativeness," says Delhi-based art collector Swapan Seth, who bought the works of Biraaj Dodiya and Parul Gupta during the pandemic. "What Warren Buffett said of investing in stock markets holds true of investing in art as well," he adds. "When people are greedy, be careful. When people are careful, be greedy."

Vazirani is confident the trajectory is still moving upwards. "We haven’t hit the peak yet. We’re hoping to see this upward trend continue to grow, while simultaneously playing a critical role in the process of familiarising and popularising the works of these wonderful artists for art collectors and aficionados across the world," he says.
Faizal Khan

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