The Good Life

An eye for art

The Indian art market is seeing a steady revival driven by genuine collectors rather than investors

Indian art goes back a few millennia to the stone stupas and rock carvings of the early Gupta period. The earliest form of painting emerged with wall frescoes in Buddhist cave temples at Ajanta, which influenced many periods of visual art in India, resulting in a tradition of miniature art that continued well into the 19th century. And thanks to iconic artists such as Syed Haider Raza, Francis Newton Souza and Maqbool Fida Husain as well as younger contemporaries such as Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher and Atul Dodiya, Indian art has continued to evolve in the last century. 

Few countries can match the combination of our cultural heritage and economic prowess, but, unlike countries like China with similar advantages, we have not fulfilled our potential on the global art stage.

Today, India accounts for less than 1% of global art market sales, while China makes up for 22%, tying with the UK and Europe. This, according to me, is an opportunity for the Indian art market, which is still in its infancy, to develop and grow to fill this gap.

From 2000 to 2007, the Indian art market saw an unprecedented boom, fuelled to a large extent by NRI and foreign investment, with the auction portion of the market growing from ₹11 crore in 2001 to ₹648 crore in 2006 and then declining slightly to ₹475 crore in 2007. In September 2006, the auction market for Indian art showed some of the highest sales, with seven auction houses, domestic and international, grossing close to ₹220 crore in a single month. All of this came to a staggering halt with the 2008 global recession. 

The art starts

The financial crisis of 2008 started with the bursting of the real estate bubble in the West. Though emerging markets held up for while, it wasn’t long before the resulting shockwaves overwhelmed us as well. For a while, the global and Indian art markets bucked the trend, but with the collapse of Lehman Brothers, we got caught in the meltdown too, along with virtually every other market for goods or services. 

But since then, there has been a steady revival, driven by genuine art collectors, rather than investors. In 2014, south Asian auction sales from the top six auction houses raised a total of ₹428 crore.

At present, the London-based art market research firm ArtTactic puts its confidence indicator for the Indian art market at 79 on a scale of 100, the highest reading since November 2007.

In my opinion, the currently undervalued Indian art market, coupled with the growing interest in Indian art, suggests that Indian collectors will also participate in greater numbers, emulating the rise of the Chinese art market. With the right advice, there are many opportunities to buy art at attractive valuations. 

Art as investment in India is currently a niche concept, still nascent and as yet immature. Most Indians, wealthy or otherwise, tend not to view art as an investment, although there are a few HNIs and wealth managers who might allocate a portion of their portfolio to it. That being said, most art collectors globally buy art with the intent to enjoy it, and not so much as an investment opportunity.

Unlike stocks, art is a relatively illiquid asset. Of course, even the most passionate collectors would like their art to increase in value over time, but the return on investment is long term and depending on the artist, it can generate returns over several years. 

One way to look at art is as a very personal asset—just as buying your home is. Compare that to buying a car, whose value depreciates the moment you drive it out of the showroom. With art, the benefits are twofold—you acquire beauty, culture and something to pass on to the next generation, but also an asset that can appreciate in value. 

The formalised Indian art market is only about 15 years old. Culturally, art is not as prominent in the Indian public consciousness, as compared to our global counterparts. There have been developments in the last few years that indicate a change and growing interest in art, such as the Kochi-Muziris Biennale which just completed its second edition last month; the growing number of auctions in India; the artistic initiatives taken by the Kiran Nadar Musuem of Art and the Devi Art Foundation in the past decade to generate interest in Indian art; and internationally,the collaborative efforts of Tate Museum and the British Ministry of Culture with the Indian government to feature Indian artists, and the presence of south Asian artists at the upcoming Venice Biennale in May.

In the years following the 2008 economic crisis, sales of younger artists dropped significantly. But art by the older stalwarts sustained a steady interest, growing despite all odds. In 2013, Modernist Vasudeo Gaitonde’s Untitled (1979) sold at the hammer price of $3.3 million at Christie’s inaugural sale in Mumbai, and currently holds the world record price for an Indian artist. Last year, Gaitonde’s Painting No. 3 sold at $2.1 million at Sotheby’s New York, pushing the artist to the forefront of the current Indian market scene. 

Art by younger contemporary artists, on the other hand, has seen subdued sales. Artists such as Jitish Kallat, Bharti Kher and Subodh Gupta hold the top spots, but they haven’t managed to regain the prominence of the pre-2008 days, when contemporary art made up for 41% of total auction sales. Reasons for this include a hangover from the investment-induced rise of the contemporary art market, as well as a flight to the safety of more established artists. There are indications, however, that the contemporary art market may be at a turning point after this extended slump.

The 2014 ArtTactic report predicts an upward trend for Indian Contemporary art this year. Platforms like the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which saw 94 Indian and global artists create site-specific art and installations, are geared towards sustaining the dialogue of art and generating interest in contemporary art. A recent fundraiser auction for the Kochi Biennale, hosted by Saffronart, generated a corpus of ₹2.3 crore.

India also has a rich heritage of antiquities and miniature paintings but sadly, the artists are largely unknown. Today, there are opportunities to buy antiques at attractive prices in India, as prices for similar pieces in the West are much higher. Part of the reason for this is that people have been deterred by the regulations for antiquities in India, which impose certain administrative requirements on buyers. These laws are likely to be simplified in the years to come.

There are many ways to acquire art — through auction houses, art galleries and private dealers. Whether privately or publicly, all three act as intermediaries and handle everything from selling to shipping the works to clients, and there are reasons to buy from each of them. At auctions, the market determines the value — you could see an artwork go for high prices, but on the other hand, buyers can also get bargains below the initial estimated value. 

There is a crucial need for public education in art. We have an incredibly rich history of art in our country, but we’re still young when it comes to awareness. Investment shouldn’t come just from buyers but the government as well, in terms of raising the benchmark for art discourse. 

Take your time to study art. Turn to credible advisors, gallerists and auction houses. Look at auction catalogues, price estimates, sale values (which can be found on the websites of auction houses) and provenance details. Pay attention to the artist’s body of work, their style and what they’re trying to communicate through their art, the work’s authenticity and chain of ownership. Buy selectively and buy quality works. Lower prices do not necessarily imply great value for money; at times, higher priced quality works have better value. 

Finally, buy art because it speaks to you in some way. In my experience, good things in life happen out of love and passion. With a bit of luck, the money follows. 

The author is the co-founder and CEO of Saffronart