People call them the power couple of the Indian art market, a dual force that’s changed the way collectors buy and sell. When they started out, art galleries sitting across the road from each other carried totally different prices for paintings and sculpture born of the same artist and the same period. Pricing was simply a matter of random calculations, as most artists were not attached to a particular gallery.
The Vaziranis became part of the first winds of change when they launched their online auction house, Saffronart, in 2000 and brandished rates alongside the works. “Since the prices were publicized to everyone, buyers had a point of reference to check anything they were buying, and pricing had to be more regulated,” says Minal Vazirani, over breakfast at South Mumbai eatery Indigo Deli.
The company, which Minal co-founded with her husband, Dinesh, seven years ago, studiously avoids the PR route, so meetings with hacks are hand-picked, planned and executed by the lady herself.
As the arms and legs behind India’s largest Internet auctioneer and one of the largest resources for Indian contemporary art—providing serious competition to centuries-old institutions like Christie’s and Sotheby’s—there are plenty of collectors out there who would love to pick her brain for the next wave of potentials. “Antiquities don’t excite us as much as modern art,” she says. “We pick the contemporary because it defines who we are as a people now.”
When the Vaziranis first went online, estimations of the Indian art market came in at under $3million (about Rs12.6 crore). Today, the market is estimated to be around $350 million. Worth enough to attract the attention of the taxman: The 2007 Budget included a capital gains tax levy on the sale of paintings, and then, earlier this month, the country’s major auction houses, including Saffronart, were raided. The tax department spotlight comes on the heels of a heated market that’s said to be growing 100% annually.
In the span of seven fortuitous years, the Vaziranis’ firm has gone from being a quirky little auction house to one that raked in revenue upward of $50 million last year. “We were a tiny company, with zero asymmetrical margins. People thought we were crazy when we first started, and no one hesitated to tell us that,” says the petite 36-year-old. Their very first auction was a four-day marathon, which made about $126,000, but the turnout was good enough to tell the couple that they were on to a good thing.
While many factors have come together in the art world and the economy to push the fledgling market into becoming the hottest buzzword of the decade, Saffronart’s accomplishments also have something to do with the Vazirani strategy, which pushed the idea of a more transparent and accessible buyer’s market. And it’s worked. Every year, the company conducts four major auctions, in the summer, spring, autumn and winter; their latest Spring auction in March was worth $5 million, while December 2006’s realized about $16 million. Definitely not quite so quirky any more.
It’s a success story that no one, least of all their detractors, expected of the young couple when Minal quit her management consulting job to action a business plan which she first drew up while at INSEAD business school in France.
For years, the couple had spent their Saturdays combing through art galleries, locating pieces they loved and indulging in what Minal characterizes as “a general love to acquire” pieces they fell in love with. But buying Indian art from the US, where the couple lived till 1995, wasn’t easy. “We always knew we wanted to focus on the buyer-base outside India, and improve the accessibility of Indian products. There were lots of people like us who wanted to buy, but couldn’t figure out how,” she says.
The Saffronart of today was part of a three-pronged lifestyle concept company with two cohorts, Saffronsoul and Saffronstyle. (The company was first started in a little office that shared space with Dinesh’s family business, WMI Cranes, which manufactures material-handling equipment.) But the middle sister proved the most profitable, and Saffronart is the only one still standing from the original trio. “The idea was related to lifestyle products, ayurveda, fashion and art, but it was before its time,” says Minal.
The better part of Minal’s days, when she’s in Mumbai, are spent at Saffronart’s large gallery space in midtown Mumbai. At their spring online auction in March, the space filled out under the gaze of G. Ravinder Reddy’s 7ft tall Radha, looming over some 12 buyers, quietly seated at tables, watching live bids on individual terminals. Incidentally, Radha, which Saffronart pegged at $209,310 at the top end, finally sold for more than $346,000. “Auctions should never set prices, galleries should. Auctions are simply a snapshot of when a person in that moment, for whatever reason, decides to spend a certain amount of money on something,” she says.
The Vaziranis can empathize with their buyers and the spontaneous decision-making that takes place at auctions. A few years ago, they spent several sleepless nights trying to figure out how they would pay for a Raza they’d purchased at an international auction; they had overpaid at least two-and-a-half times the estimated price. “The morning after we bought it, a dealer called to ask if we’d heard what some idiot had just paid for a Raza. When we told him it was us, there was silence at the other end,” remembers Minal.
But the personal collection, built over years and through much financial stretching, has seen its share of sacrifice; four years ago, when the company’s fortunes were floundering, the Vaziranis were forced to sell a part of it to keep the outfit afloat. “We haven’t been able to buy back anything we lost then,” says Minal.
One piece that was lost in that sale was part of a group the couple had been gathering for their three-year-old daughter from before she was even born. “Every year, we buy a piece for her, and write a letter to her about why we chose that piece and when it was bought,” says Minal.
But Saffronart isn’t about building a family firm, Minal insists. “Several of our people didn’t even realize that Dinesh and I were married for months after they joined.” The Mumbai-based firm already has 30 employees across three locations and they’re still hiring.
‘What next?’ is not an unusual question to inject at this point in the conversation. The Vaziranis want to turn Saffronart into the single largest resource for Indian art worldwide; like we said at the beginning, they’re already one of the biggest.
Big enough for Harvard Business School to be doing a case study on the company for the past year. “When they began doing the study, it gave us a chance to take a fresh look at ourselves and what we’ve been doing,” says Minal. The study is expected to come out this year.
Name: Minal Vazirani
Born: 1971 (New Delhi)
Education: After completing her undergraduate programme in chemical and bio engineering from University of California, USA, she did an MBA at INSEAD, France.
Work Profile: Vazirani worked for several years as a management consultant for Andersen Consulting and Booz Allen Hamilton, before setting up Saffronart in 2000.