NEW DELHI — Sotheby's, a leading player in the global art market, is set to launch its first India auction in Mumbai later this year. And the sale will be led by "Untitled 'Durga'" – a seminal, never-before-seen painting by modernist master Tyeb Mehta.
Titled "Boundless: Mumbai," the auction will include not only important works of South Asian art, but also a broad variety of pieces from other categories too, such as photography and design, carefully chosen for collectors in India, Gaurav Bhatia, managing director, Sotheby's India, told IANS in an interview.
But Mehta's "Untitled 'Durga'" remains the highlight. As Bhatia quipped, "it is among the most valuable works of South Asian art ever offered for auction."
Although Sotheby's has been in the arts business for over 350 years and has a global network of 80 offices in 40 countries, it was only in September 2016 that its Mumbai office began operations. And, in just a little over two years, it will launch its India auction this December.
The motivation? "The extremely positive sentiment in the Indian art market," Bhatia contended.
He highlighted that with "a stronger base and focus on cultural value," rather than purely fiscal, Indian art is seeing "a sustainable resurgence." This, interestingly, comes at a time when the art market is just beginning to revive after a downswing in most parts of the world.
Earlier this week, economist Clare McAndrew released the study "Art Market | 2018" and his findings suggest that the global art economy grew for the first time since 2014 with $63.7 billion in total global sales in 2017, a rise of 12 percent over 2016, after years of what is commonly referred to as an "art recession."
Noting that "exciting public and private initiatives are serving as new building blocks for the Indian contemporary art scene," Bhatia said that continually increasing public wealth is bringing newer collectors into the market. Besides, all the biennales, art fairs and private museums are, according to Bhatia, adding a wonderful flavor, shaping the collectors' mind and giving them incredible exposure.
"Indian artists are being recognized internationally and institutionally. Contemporary Art in India knows no limits in form and creativity. We see a realistic optimism and excitement in the market," said Bhatia, who is responsible for establishing and developing a compelling growth strategy for Sotheby's in India.
The auction house, he noted, has witnessed both the ever-growing presence of Indian collectors at its global auctions, as also the development of an increasingly vibrant domestic art market in recent years.
This is evident from the fact that the number of clients residing in India who are bidding online in Sotheby's worldwide sales has increased by nine times in the last five years, which translates to an increase of a staggering 59 percent in the value spent by its Indian clients online.
At its global sales too, the participation of Indian clients has almost doubled in the past five years and they have bought over $250 million worth of art in this period.
When Sotheby's held its first online-only South Asian art sale, "A Lyrical Line: Paintings and Drawings" by Francis Newton Souza, in March 2017, it saw participation from over 11 countries with 22 percent of buyers based in India and achieved a strong sell-through rate of 83 percent.
Further, in the same year, the auction house achieved a world record price for Bhupen Khakhar's "De-Luxe Tailors" which sold at a whopping Rs. 9.5 crore in London. Add to this, Raja Ravi Varma's sublime "Damayanti," – a painting that fetched over double its upper estimate to sell for Rs. 11.09 crore at their New York sale in March 2017 – and the prospects of contemporary Indian art market become quite evident.
And guess what? Both these paintings were sold to Indian clients.
"Given these positive signs, and the projected economic growth for India in the future, it is the right time for Sotheby's to further expand the services we offer our clients in the region, and to bring our auctions directly to the doorstep of our many collectors. The Indian Art story has never been more vibrant," Bhatia maintained.
But then, there is a well-documented history of collecting in India. Bhatia said Indian clients have been important participants in Sotheby's sales for many years.
"We even have records from 1937 telling us about an Indian Maharaja who bought Marie Antoinette's diamond necklace at Sotheby's London when he was visiting for King George VI's Coronation," he informed, adding: "It is only fitting that we announced our inaugural Mumbai auction in 2018."
However, all the hype aside, one major criticism leveled against almost every auction house is that they are all about sales and high-society and that there is little effort to bring the arts to the public. Does Sotheby's have a plan to bridge this gap?
Bhatia, who provides trusted advice and serves in a client and business development capacity with Sotheby's highest echelon of collectors, said that all of Sotheby's pre-auction exhibitions across the world are free to visit and open to everyone.
"The auctions in India will be no exception. These pre-sale exhibitions are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities to see museum-quality artworks, many of which have never been seen in public before. Sotheby's sales include works at all price points. The newspaper headlines often focus on the multimillion dollar works, but Sotheby's offers many artworks at much more accessible levels, starting at just a few hundred dollars in some cases," he said.
Bhatia, a well-known opinion leader in the art and luxury segment, contended that despite hiccups in the economy with demonetization and the introduction of Goods and Services Tax, Sotheby's clients are thriving and realize that important and newly discovered art works are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities.