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Holly Brackenbury | India needs more world class art institutions

Holly Brackenbury | India needs more world class art institutions

Between 2000 and 2010, the auction market for Indian art shot up from around $5 million (Rs22 crore) to an estimated $85 million (figures from Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Saffronart). The scale of the ongoing India Art Summit, with 84 galleries from 20 countries participating, is a reflection of this exponential rise in interest. Holly Brackenbury, deputy director of Sotheby’s for Islamic and Indian Art, is in New Delhi to attend the summit where she will also be part of a panel on Indian art in the international art circuit.

Brackenbury has been with Sotheby’s since 1999 as a key figure in the auction house’s global India team. In the past few years, she has spearheaded a couple of landmark auctions—the Tipu Sultan Collection and Exotica sale in 2005 and the Tagore Collection of The Dartington Hall Trust in June 2010 which achieved a world record price at the auction. Brackenbury speaks about the factors and impediments in the growth of the Indian art market. Edited excerpts from an interview:

How does the Indian Art Summit measure up against art fairs conducted internationally?

It’s definitely the most important art event in the region. And it’s remarkable that they’ve achieved that in three years.

What is the most significant change you have noticed in the Indian art market during your 11-year tenure at Sotheby’s

The changes have been threefold—sale volumes, price points and perception. The market has been rising over the past decade but things really speeded up in 2005. Though that had a lot to do with the Indian economy, the change in perception is a crucial factor. There’s been an increase in the global awareness of Indian art. Universities abroad have started producing Indian art experts, Indian galleries are participating in international art fairs and biennales. Most importantly, serious international collectors have started taking an interest in art from South Asia.

How has the buyer category for Indian art changed since 2005

In its sales results, Sotheby’s slots buyers into categories such as American or Indian or South East Asian private collector. The buying and selling activity from India has doubled across all our auction categories including jewellery, antiquities, etc. So, apart from the global interest in India, India’s interest in India is the big story. The percentage of Indian collectors in our collector base for Indian art has dramatically shot up.

How has Sotheby’s worked to address this changing dynamic?

Sotheby’s held the first-ever auction of modern Indian art in 1995. It was a groundbreaking sale of the Herwitz Collection of Indian art in New York for a total of $856,000. Those sales really put Indian art on the international map.

In 2005, we were the first auction house to make Indian modern and contemporary art a separate annual feature. The robust market for modern and contemporary Indian art continues to fuel Sotheby’s auctions in this category. Originally, we’d incorporated antiquities in this category but even that has its own dedicated category now. In 2008, we also started incorporating Indian artists in international sale lots. The interest of bluechip collectors such as Charles Saatchi and Frank Cohen, who are the tastemakers for the art market, was an important factor.

These were the two fundamental changes on our part: Auctions dedicated to Indian art and the inclusion of Indian artists in international auctions.

How does the growth of the Indian market measure up to other emerging art markets?

There is still a long way to go. Sale totals of China and Russia are 4-5 times more than what Indian art sales are generating.

Tell us the specific numbers.

When we started our dedicated Chinese contemporary art sales in 2004, the auctions were generating around $6 million. In 2010, the sale totals for our Chinese art auctions are around $196 million. This is phenomenal when compared to India which has gone from around $2 million to $20 million in the same period.

What are the reasons for this?

Countries such as China, and even Russia, have had a tremendous state investment in cultural infrastructure such as museums that India doesn’t. The average Indian art buyer isn’t very eager or well informed. The ball is rolling now, but it’ll still take 5-10 years to catch up. And that’s a conservative estimate.

It’s important to note that both countries had very different trajectories. The Chinese buyer largely collects Western art and they started taking an interest in Chinese art only after the big American and European collectors stepped into the scene. Indian buyers have always had great pride in collecting Indian art.

What should players in the Indian art market be rooting for?

India needs more world class art institutions. Organizations such as the Delhi-based KHOJ International Artists’ Association are doing great work in promoting artists. Several private museums are coming up and that’s a promising development but they won’t be able to keep up the good work without the necessary support from the Indian government in terms of tax benefits and import restrictions. India needs more private public partnership in the arts sector.

Have the government relaxations pertaining to the import and export of Indian antiquities reflected directly in your antiquities sale results?

These things take time. Besides, the government policy hasn’t been concretised yet. Collectors are sitting on the sidelines. Once the changes do come through, it would be interesting to see how the Indian antiquities segment grows.

Tell us more about the Dartington Hall Trust sale of Rabindranath Tagore’s artworks that you headed last year. Tagore is not really known as an artist in India. What made you take that big leap in acquiring and selling those works?

The auction market is really all about provenance. The Dartington Hall Trust is a charitable trust with a long association with Tagore. Most of the works in their collection were personally gifted by the writer himself which made it a collection with a fantastic history. They were arguably the most important group of works by Tagore ever to appear at auction. The works hadn’t been on the market for 70 years and they were in fantastic condition. The sale broke auction records for Tagore as an artist, with a 1938 untitled portrait of a woman fetching £313,250 against an estimate of £30,000-40,000!

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