Growing wealth at home fuels an Indian art boom.
Oct. 17, 2005 issue - Looking for a good investment? Try contemporary Indian art. In back-to-back auctions held by Christie's and Sotheby's in New York last month, four different works topped the previous auction-price record of $317,500, set by Tyeb Mehta's "Celebration" in 2002. And, according to experts, that's just the beginning. "Because of the strength of the market and the strength of the Indian economy, we're seeing that many of the paintings exceeded estimates, some tripling or quadrupling our expectations," says Yamini Mehta, who oversees modern and contemporary Indian art at Christie's. At separate auctions at both houses on Sept. 20 and 21, 16 works by contemporary Indian artists sold for more than $200,000 apiece; even more impressive, Christie's brought the hammer down on Mehta's painting "Mahisasura" for a whopping $1.6 million—five times the previous auction record. "It [was] an amazing week," says Robin Dean, director of the Indian and Southeast Asian department at Sotheby's.
Not coincidentally, nearly all the artworks that broke $200,000 were by artists belonging to the Progressive Group. Founded around India's struggle for independence in the late 1940s, the group includes artists like Mehta, Ram Kumar, Maqbool Fida Husain, Syed Haider Raza and Francis Newton Souza, who rejected the colonial British academic style and began the modernist movement in India. "Today we paint with absolute freedom for content and technique," reads the group's 1948 manifesto.
The market for their works took off in 1995, when Sotheby's auctioned off paintings from the extensive private collection of the Chester and Davida Herwitz Charitable Trust. At that time, according to Neville Tuli, who started India's first domestic auction house, Osian's, the entire Indian art market amounted to about $1 million. Today the same market is valued at close to $180 million.
At first the Indian diaspora drove demand, but now growing wealth in India itself is fueling the market. In the mid-1990s, most buyers were scions of India's industrial dynasties, who favored the realistic, conservative artists of the Bengal school. In the late 1990s, nonresident Indians, or NRIs, who preferred the bolder, more colorful and less traditional work of the Progressives, began dominating the market. Today, domestic buyers—buoyed by India's skyrocketing stock and real-estate markets and fast-growing economy—are helping drive prices higher. While an overseas Indian bought Mehta's "Mahisasura," private collectors living in India accounted for four of Christie's biggest sales last month, paying $486,400 for Husain's "Trial," $385,600 and $262,400 for two untitled paintings by Kumar and $284,800 for Souza's "Girl With Hairpin and Girdle." "The biggest change is the increase in activity from India itself," says Dean. And there's more to come: "For every work that sells, there are two or three new very wealthy people that come into the market."
Meanwhile, the big players in India's domestic art market—Osian's, Dinesh Vazirani's Saffronart.com and Geetha Mehra and Pravin Gandhi's Sakshi Art Gallery, among others—are aggressively pushing the field in new directions. Osian's Tuli has published art books, built the world's largest archive of Indian art and developed a historical record of prices. Saffronart.com pioneered online auctions, introducing a new level of transparency to a market long characterized by backroom, cash-only deals that left would-be buyers uncertain of the real market value of the works up for sale.
Now Tuli, Mehra and Gandhi are developing new ventures for the domestic art market: competing art-investment funds. In August, Mehra and Gandhi, backed by Edelweiss Capital, launched the Yatra fund. So far they have raised at least $2.3 million from high-net-worth investors—each of whom committed a minimum of $45,000 for four years—interested in tapping the art market. Osian's has a similar fund slated for launch in November; Tuli—never less than bold—expects to bankroll his fund with $25 million. In this market, he says, raising that amount is "a two-day job." Indeed, he has a good pitch: starting with about $3.5 million in 2000, Osian's is now worth more than 10 times that amount. You just can't beat that kind of a return.