Interview by Lindsay Pollock
Every usable surface of New Delhi native Rajiv Chaudhri’s New York home and office reflects a 15-year obsession with artwork from India.
Curvy stone goddesses butt up against thickly impastoed canvases. Art-history tomes are piled anywhere painting and sculpture are absent. Even the office-computer screen saver flashes with images of his collection — interspersed with pictures of Payal, his photogenic wife.
Chaudhri, founder and president of Digital Century Capital, a technology hedge fund, will be among the bidders at the annual spring Asia Week auctions March 19-23 at Sotheby’s and Christie’s — which project a record $136.4 million tally.
In 1997, Chaudhri departed Goldman Sachs to start Digital Century. He was already smitten with Indian art, chasing both ancient classical sculpture as well as modern and contemporary canvases by artists such as Francis Newton Souza and Maqbool Fida Husain. Digital Century’s Madison Avenue offices display overflow from his more than 300 artworks; a 10th-century phallic lingam in pink sandstone, honoring the Hindu god Shiva, adorns the conference room.
Chaudhri, in his mid-40s, wearing a chic green cardigan and rectangular Daniel Libeskind-like glasses, spoke to me in his office.
Pollock: With prices for modern Indian artwork zooming up, will you set an auction budget for yourself?
Chaudhri: You can’t set a budget, but I do think about priorities.
Pollock: When you paid $1.6 million for Tyeb Mehta’s 1997 “Mahisasura” at Christie’s in 2005, it was the first Indian painting to cross the million-dollar mark and is still the most expensive modern Indian artwork sold at auction. What made you want it?
Chaudhri: I spent probably a month looking at that painting before the auction. I was mesmerized and transfixed by it. It just oozes power, and I wanted to have it.
Pollock: But you paid more than double the high estimate.
Chaudhri: I was determined to have it. Unfortunately for me there was someone else in the auction room who was willing to pay almost as much as I was.
Pollock: Do you think prices for contemporary and modern Indian art are getting too high, in some part due to your own collecting?
Chaudhri: If you look at Indian art from a purely financial perspective, I would say it’s cheap relative to Western or even Chinese art.
Pollock: Do you include Mehta, whose work now fetches more than $1 million at auction?
Chaudhri: He is one of India’s finest painters of the 20th century. The reality is that average artists from the West routinely sell for $5 million to $7 million. And by the way, Mehta painted only 200 works in his entire life. Andy Warhol probably did 200 every six months.
Pollock: You were born and raised in New Delhi. Is your heritage the reason you concentrate on Indian work?
Chaudhri: I decided to focus on Indian art simply because this was an area that was not well traveled. I could do something unique as well as support my own heritage.
Pollock: Don’t other Indians collect Indian art? What about classical art, which has been coveted in the West for more than a century?
Chaudhri: Indians have a somewhat wary attitude regarding antiquities as art. They may see them as damaged religious objects taken out of context.
Pollock: Because you run a hedge fund, do art dealers ask you for absurd prices?
Chaudhri: It’s a fact of life. We try to be careful, but that risk is always out there.
Pollock: Does it bother you that because Indian artworks are commanding impressive prices, the work is being taken more seriously?
Chaudhri: The emphasis on prices is unsettling, but it’s a damn good thing for Indian artists that the prices are becoming what they are becoming, because it is now supporting the activities of these people who could not have survived. Indian artists do not have to starve anymore.
Pollock: What will this mean for the rest of the art world?
Chaudhri: You unleash the creativity of a billion people. That can’t be a bad thing. There’s going to be some Picassos coming out of that billion people.
Lindsay Pollock writes on the art market for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.