Mumbai rising: As Christie’s moves into India, gallerists give a view from the ground

What do Mumbai’s gallerists think of Christie’s December 2013 Mumbai auction?

Global auction house Christie’s recently announced plans to hold their inaugural Mumbai sale in December 2013. Will this affect the local art market? Art Radar interviewed three gallerists to find out what is going on in Mumbai’s current art scene and how the coming of Christie’s might affect galleries on the ground.

Christie's at India Art Fair 2013. Image courtesy Christie's.

Christie’s at India Art Fair 2013. Image courtesy Christie’s.

Christie’s has come under fire for what USA Today calls “predatory behavior” in Detroit, Michigan. It has been reported that representatives from the major auction house visited the Detroit Institute of Arts in order to appraise the art for a potential sale. In a city going bankrupt, creditors think selling off some of the famed art collection is a viable solution. USA Today quoted art writers Judith Dobrzynski who wrote  “shame on Christie’s” and Tyler Green who denounced Christie’s actions on Twitter: “would we be OK with Big Pharma using a national tragedy to hike up the price of drugs? No. Ditto @Christie’s and its eagerness here.”

Will Christie’s provoke such a negative reaction among the art community in Mumbai, India, where it will have its first Mumbai art auction slated for December 2013? Even though Christie’s established an office in Mumbai in 1994, they have not held a major auction in the city in the intervening two decades. However, they are proving to be a formidable force in the Indian art market.

Forbes reports that, according to Christie’s estimates, since 2010 the auction market for Indian art (which includes classical, traditional, modern and contemporary art) totalled over USD 300 million, and that Christie’s claims it has the majority of sales at USD 160 million. Forbes states that “by hosting an on-site sale in India, the auctioneer is ensuring it continues to steal a march over rivals.”

Christie’s is knowledgeable about India’s art market, as evidenced in an interview with Amin Jaffer, Christie’s International Director of Asian Art, published 10 December 2012 on Christie’s website.

What is the state of the market for Indian art?
Our sales of Modern and Contemporary Indian Art have remained consistently strong, with extremely impressive results for works by Indian modern masters such as Tyeb Mehta, MF Husain, SH Raza as well as FN Souza and VS Gaitonde who have all achieved record prices at our salerooms. Ultimately, the strength of the market is dictated by the quality of what we have to offer and we are fortunate to have so many strong and varied works with which to shape our sales and satisfy the tastes of collectors. Lately collectors have shown significant interest in contemporary artists such as Subodh Gupta and Jitish Kallat, both artists who have been influenced by their travel outside India, constantly reconfiguring classical traditions and addressing their country’s history.

According to a recent article in The Financial Times, this is a good time for Christie’s to get in on the action as “India’s art market began to pick up in the second half of 2012 after two bad years following the global economic crisis.” The article also states that Christie’s “client base has grown four-fold in India over the past decade.”

Is Christie’s inaugural sale a viable threat to Mumbai’s established art galleries? Representatives from the Guild Art Gallery, Jhaveri Contemporary and Chatterjee & Lal provide their expert opinions.

Riyas Komu, 'Two Fathers from Gujrat,' 2008, mixed media, 160 x 264.2cm. Image courtesy Saffronart.

Riyas Komu, ‘Two Fathers from Gujrat,’ 2008, mixed media, 160 x 264.2 cm. Image courtesy Saffronart.

Renuka Sawhney of The Guild Art Gallery    

The Guild Art Gallery, founded in 1997, is located in Colaba, Mumbai. Specialising in Indian contemporary art, the Guild runs active programmes and lectures, and helps to present their artists’ works into “biennials and other institutional contexts.” The Guild has published over 50 catalogues and 7 major volumes on artists. The Guild’s artists include Riyas Komu and Charwei Tsai.

Some say the Indian art market has never been the same since 2008; how do you feel the global financial crisis affected contemporary art sales on the ground?

The trickle down effects of the global financial crisis did not affect the Indian markets fully until about 2010. In that sense the market was buffered by two years of decreasing momentum, and as such contemporary art sales were not disproportionately affected until 2010. The last three years have seen a significant drop in contemporary art sales, but it has also served to clarify the market. Speculators have been priced out of the market, and room has been made for serious and long-term collectors to enter the markets, albeit slowly. Confidence is slowly building due to the increasing quality of works, a growing collector base, and through the efforts of galleries and institutions in building a sustainable market for contemporary Indian art.

What do you think has changed to make now the right time for Christie’s to hold sales in Mumbai?

Christie’s clearly takes a long-term view of the market in India and, we think, is entering the market at the time when, although [still] in transition towards maturity, the market also shows trends towards growth. Christie’s decision to hold sales in Mumbai clearly indicates their confidence in the market in the long term, as well as reflecting the possibility of younger and newer collectors entering the market and offering to them a chance at building their collections.

How will the entry of Christie’s into Mumbai change the way you do business? Positively, negatively or not at all?

Christie’s entry into the market is an obvious positive for galleries as it reflects the maturity of the market, as well as provides collectors – institutional and private – with the confidence that the Indian contemporary market is trending upwards and forwards. For galleries it formalises the market on the ground, rather than in distance (sales in New York, London and Dubai), and additionally adds Mumbai to that long list of cities where the infrastructure for contemporary art is formalised and stabilised by the entry of Christie’s, a market-maker.

Charwei Tsai, 'Shi Na Paradna,' 2012, Video, 4 min. In collaboration with Tsering Tashi Gyalthang. Image courtesy artist.

Charwei Tsai, ‘Shi Na Paradna,’ 2012, video, 4 min, in collaboration with Tsering Tashi Gyalthang. Image courtesy artist.

India did not have a pavilion in Venice this year… bad decision?

Yes, but the absence of India at the Venice Biennale speaks to the nature of the difference between private investment and state investment with regards to their motives. We can argue that participation at the Venice Biennale serves to project India’s soft power, but with the same token we can argue that domestic politics and international politics do not necessarily have the same goals and methods. Cultural soft power, however, does have significant although layered advantages for countries that apply the doctrine of soft power, and given the obvious advantages it would be fallacy to suggest that India not participate at the Venice Biennale.

Nevertheless, support for any participation at such international events must come not only from the state, but also from public and private institutions and individuals – all those who are stakeholders to the art market. The Venice Biennale is a cultural behemoth whose influence outside the art world as it exists may be disputed in theory, but the significant question that must be asked outside the art world is of the nature of benefits incurred by the country and by the aforementioned stakeholders.

People are wondering whether Indian contemporary art is capable of catching up to China in terms of commercial or critical success these days. What do you think?

A comparison is unwise, as the nature of both markets is subject to differences in depth, momentum and reach. Just as one diversifies portfolios in order to mitigate risk and reap benefits, so should investors, collectors and thereby markets explore creative collaborations and non-destructive competencies. Commercial and critical success across regions and countries in the same market are a function of the institutions that build and participate in the market. This is not to say that in comparison to China India falls behind in commercial or critical success, but rather to say that the Indian market differs in terms of the efficacy of execution of these objectives.

Benode Behari Mukherjee, 'Green figure with Table', 1969, collage, 38.7 x 27 cm. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Benode Behari Mukherjee, ‘Green figure with Table’, 1969, collage, 38.7 x 27 cm. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Amrita Jhaveri from Jhaveri Contemporary

Jhaveri Contemporary showcases modern and contemporary art from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and a wider South Asian diaspora. Artists whose works have been exhibited include Benode Behari MukherjeeFN SouzaNandalal Bose and Simryn Gill. According to Mumbaimag, “Amrita Jhaveri, who runs this gallery is one of the most influential art consultants in India.

Some say the Indian art market has never been the same since 2008; how do you feel the global financial crisis affected contemporary art sales on the ground?

It certainly hasn’t been the same since 2008, but I’m not sure it can be entirely blamed on the global financial crisis. I think the way art is promoted and sold locally (as an asset class) is its main downfall.

What do you think has changed to make now the right time for Christie’s to hold sales in Mumbai?

It is a surprising move as the fundamental issues for an international business to operate in India remain much the same.

How will the entry of Christie’s into Mumbai change the way you do business? Positively, negatively or not at all?

I can’t see how it will change the way we do business, but I guess we will wait and see.

India did not have a pavilion in Venice this year… bad decision?

[I’m] not sure if not having a pavilion is worse than having one run by government appointed bureaucrats, which is what it most likely would have been.

People are wondering whether Indian contemporary art is capable of catching up to China in terms of commercial or critical success these days. What do you think?

I don’t know enough about Chinese contemporary art to make a comment, but just looking at the numbers it looks very unlikely.

Simryn Gill, 'Mine', 2008, mixed media, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Simryn Gill, ‘Mine’, 2008, mixed media, dimensions variable. Image courtesy Jhaveri Contemporary.

Ashish Avikunthak, 'Katha Upanishad', 2010, three channel video installation. Image courtesy chatterjee & lal.

Ashish Avikunthak, ‘Katha Upanishad’, 2010, three channel video installation. Image courtesy Chatterjee & Lal.

Mortimer Chatterjee of Chatterjee & Lal    

Chatterjee & Lal was established by husband and wife team Mortimer Chatterjee and Tara Lal in 2003. Outgrowing their modest 200 square foot space, Chatterjee & Lal is currently located in a 1600 square foot Victorian era warehouse. Besides exhibitions, the gallery organises projects by artists to take place within various non-traditional city spaces. Their artists include Ashish Avikunthak and Sahej Rahal.

Some say the Indian art market has never been the same since 2008; how do you feel the global financial crisis affected contemporary art sales on the ground?

Contemporary art sales have been affected adversely since 2008, there is no doubt about it. Having said that, serious collectors have remained active and, in addition, long-term collectors who were wary of the speculative atmosphere in the boom years have returned to buying contemporary now [that] there is less background noise.

What do you think has changed to make now the right time for Christie’s to hold sales in Mumbai?

Christie’s have had an office in Mumbai for well over a decade now and their relationship with Indian art dates right back to the beginning of their auction history. The reason that they are hosting sales in Mumbai at this point is mostly to do with an increasingly auction-savvy collector group based in the city. The success of local auction house Pundole’s has most certainly pointed to potential growth in this segment.

How will the entry of Christie’s into Mumbai change the way you do business? Positively, negatively or not at all?

We would imagine that Christie’s main focus would be on modern Indian painters and, perhaps, antiquities. The core focus of most commercial galleries in Mumbai is on contemporary Indian art and so in the short term the impact of Christie’s on the way we operate will be minimal. We look forward to Christie’s bringing their considerable know-how to the market and increasing the visibility of the arts of India to a new generation of local buyers.

Sahej Rahal, 'The Groom', 2011, C-print, 28 x 19.5 in. Image courtesy Chatterjee & Lal.

Sahej Rahal, ‘The Groom’, 2011, C-print, 28 x 19.5 in. Image courtesy Chatterjee & Lal.

India did not have a pavilion in Venice this year… bad decision?

An atrocious decision and one that should hang heavy on the conscience of those within whose power the actualisation of an Indian pavilion was entrusted.

People are wondering whether Indian contemporary art is capable of catching up to China in terms of commercial or critical success these days… what do you think?

If you take a step back and look at the number of contemporary artists with connections to India who are enjoying global success, it is actually a very large number. The success of Indian contemporary artists is that they are able to function both at a local and a global level with little recourse to a rhetoric of the nation state and, as such, their nationality often takes a back seat in discussions around their practice.

There are a great number of artists with connections to South Asia who now have representation in major galleries the world over and whilst the homogeneous lumpen thing we call Chinese contemporary or Indian contemporary might lead you to believe China is presently at an advantage, the influence of contemporary Indian artists is felt keenly the world over.

Susan Kendzulak

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Related Topics: market watch – galleries, Indian art, Mumbai events, interviews

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