Financial crisis hits Indian art market

Financial crisis hits Indian art market

Kolkata: In among the first signs of a cooling in the art market, a high-profile auction of contemporary paintings in Kolkata on Saturday earned Rs4.7 crore for its organizers Emami Chisel Art gallery, one-third of original estimates of what the auction would bring in.

Around 50% of the 105 paintings on sale didn’t attract a single bidder.

The response, said Emami Chisel Art’s director and a buyer, is a sign that the general environment of economic uncertainty has affected the art market, too.

On Saturday, two paintings by India’s most famous painter M.F. Husain went for Rs40 lakh each, but two paintings by Arpita Singh and J. Swaminathan expected to attract the highest bids remained unsold.

Nine months ago, a similar auction by Emami earned Rs24 crore, and the lone Husain canvas on sale had gone for Rs4 crore.

One of the Husains sold in Saturday’s auction—an eight-year-old oil-on-canvas —could have easily fetched Rs65 lakh in better times, said Emami Chisel Art’s director Vikram Bachhawat.

Last month, a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong failed to find bidders for works by Subodh Gupta and Justin Ponmany, two leading contemporary Indian artists.

The Subodh Gupta work, touted by Sotheby’s as one of his most significant for its large size, was estimated at $1.55-2 million (Rs7.33-9.46 crore), and marked an unprecedented upset for Gupta, an artist highly coveted for his oil paintings of steel vessels.

An October study released by ArtTactic, a London-based art market research and analysis firm, further confirmed dampened spending, revealing a 34 percentage points dip in its Indian Art Market Confidence Index over the past 12 months.

Across the world, auction houses have witnessed a steep decline in activity, with major evening sales at Christie’s and Sotheby’s failing to move stock and find buyers for works by Matisse, Monet and Renoir.

Bachhawat said he anticipated the response to the auction wouldn’t be great. As a result, the gallery didn’t have a reserve price for any of the paintings on sale.

“We wanted the buyers to decide the price rather than impose a price on them," said Bachhawat. Yet, almost 50 paintings remained unsold.

The auction also didn’t attract too many participants, with most being people passionate about collecting paintings, Bachhawat said.

One such was Ashoke Kumar Mukherjee, an art collector and managing director of audio equipment maker Sonodyne International Pvt. Ltd, who picked up a six-year-old acrylic-on-jute painting by Shahabuddin Ahmed titled Gandhi for Rs1.5 lakh.

Mukherjee said he got the painting “cheap".

“For leading painters like Husain, it (the depressed market) makes little difference. But the lesser known ones are going to have a tough time."

Besides paintings by Husain, Francis Newton Souza and Satish Gujral, the gallery put on the block several canvases from the Bengal school—by painters such as Kartick Pyne, Paritosh Sen, Ganesh Pyne and Jogen Chowdhury. Of this lot, the painting that earned the most was a 1979 oil-on-canvas by Bikash Bhattacharya that went for Rs51 lakh.

Bachhawat said the only people interested in buying art in a depressed market are those who do it “out of passion", but the buyer of one of the Husain paintings disagreed.

“Art as an investment is at least less volatile than the others like the stock market," said Delhi-based Ritu Memani.

Nayantara Kilachand contributed to this story.