In the fluorescent-lit basement of Jehangir Art Gallery, Deepak Natesan, a soft-spoken dealer of bronze figures, stone sculptures and other artefacts, is unwrapping his most precious stock.

The Nainsukh of Guler that sold for $2.22 million at a Christie’s auction. (Christie’s)

“For a long time we had a gap," says Natesan who, along with his father, Kalesan Natesan, is the proprietor of Natesan’s Antiqarts in Mumbai and London. “We always had buyers overseas but now there has been a lot of interest in the past three years in India, mostly a spillover from contemporary art collectors." He estimates that his buyers have doubled and tripled in the last few years, pushed by a year-on-year 50% growth across the antiquities market in general.

“We’ve been sending catalogues to people in India for the past few sales," notes Anuradha Ghosh-Mazumdar, a painting specialist at Sotheby’s, which last month saw a record four new buyers from India for miniatures at its sale of Indian and South-East Asian art. “Somewhere, a glass ceiling was broken."

Miniatures, historically, have always been the preserve of a particular breed of collectors: Intensely detailed, and somewhat fussy, these works demand singular passion, a person appreciative of the considerable scholarly history behind them. “Miniatures are demanding," says Prof. B.N. Goswamy, one of the pre-eminent scholars of miniatures in India. “They are layered things. If you want to penetrate the appearance and relate it to poetry, then it is challenging." This, along with their tiny size, usually anonymous creators and “quiet" nature, made them less desirable to contemporary collectors, who dismissed their importance in lieu of the flashier and more obvious investment value of modern art.

But this was not always the case. In fact, miniatures—divided into several schools across India including the more well known ones such as Mughal, Deccan and Rajput—were once highly prized and sought after, with eminent collectors from both Europe and America hoarding them with determined intent. Dutch master Rembrandt, Maria Theresa of Austria and French painter Delacroix were all collectors. Rembrandt, who owned a modest collection of Mughal miniatures, even set about copying a few, admiring them for their naturalism and intricate detailing. In India, the maharajas—for whom these miniatures were usually painted—had in their palaces hundreds of albums, usually brought out only at parties to be passed around among guests. The experience was unabashedly elitist and intimate; they were not meant to be displayed on walls, as is the custom today.

Radha and Krishna. (Osian’s)

In India, the best works remained in the hands of private collectors such as Jagdish and Kamla Mittal, or in institutions and museums, such as the National Museum, the Chandigarh Museum, and the Prince of Wales Museum. Some, like the Mittals, and Suresh Neotia, chairman of Ambuja Cements Ltd, set up institutions or gifted them to family trusts like Jnana Pravaha in Varanasi, which today holds hundreds of works collected by Neotia and his family. By the 1960s and 1970s, however, most miniatures had already left India for New York, and London, which today has the highest concentration of private miniature dealers in the world.

In 1972, when the Antiquities and Art Treasures Act was set up to stop artefacts from leaving the country, only a handful of noteworthy collections were left, leaving the local miniature market all but eviscerated. Buyers had to register all works with the government, and if they were imported from abroad, pay a customs duty of 40% that deterred first-time buyers. “Given the poor quality of documentation and honest practices within the domestic antiquities market, it is ironically much cleaner, though more expensive and cumbersome, to import art back into India," says Neville Tuli, of auction house Osian’s who, for the past five years, has brought several hundred works back into India.

Harder still was finding the top-quality works that rarely seemed to recycle through the market. “It’s hard to find good miniature paintings—they’ve always been very cherished by collectors," admits Hugo K. Weihe, international director of Asian art at Christie’s which, earlier this year, broke the miniature record when a Nainsukh of Guler, from the Pahari school, sold for $2.22 million (around Rs10.73 cr).

Despite occasional freak prices, as in the case of the Nainsukh, where artist attribution helped increase its value, miniatures by and large are affordable, sometimes going for as little as $200, and usually falling within the $5000-50,000 range. A young breed of collectors, not always terribly educated in the daunting scholarship, has also helped fuel a demand for other schools, such as Pahari and Rajput. “In the last five years, miniatures from the Punjab plains with Sikh interests have been selling exceptionally well," says Margaret Erskine, a miniature consultant to Bonhams, a London-based auction house that holds bi-annual sales of miniature works. “Pahari miniatures have a particular ‘chocolate box’ appeal that is not just confined to the serious collector."

“What’s happened is that people are saying these beautiful works are so very affordable, let’s look at them again," says Weihe. And despite sometimes dealing with fledgling buyers, movement both in the local and overseas market is quick. Natesan and other dealers are usually able to sell works within days of them coming in. Francesca Galloway, one of the premier miniature dealers in London, who has been in the market since the 1970s, says she has double the number of clients she had 10 years ago, but cautions: “There are fakes, there are paintings that aren’t very subtle, and it takes a collector a while to realize what is very good." Nonetheless, in 2005, when Galloway teamed up with Sam Fogg, another London-based dealer, to buy a miniature collection formed by Indophiles William and Mildred Archer, they sold everything in the collection over the next couple of years.

A local collector who has made considerable headway into the market is Tuli, who has about 500 miniatures now in his collection. His ambition is to eventually display them at The Osianama, a public museum yet to open.

Though it is hard to estimate exactly how much the miniature market is worth, there is a general consensus that prices will increase steadily over the next few years. In the meantime, savvy dealers such as Natesan, an avid collector himself, are keeping aside a reserve collection as an investment. The market, he says, voicing the common hope, will be “at a completely different level in six or seven years".