Home >Mint-lounge >Features >Indian clients are primarily buyers, not sellers: Edward Gibbs

Mumbai: International auction house Sotheby’s, located in several cities across the globe, including London, New York, Doha and Hong Kong, has announced plans to set up an office in Mumbai. Priyanka Mathew will be the regional director of Sotheby’s India, while Edward Gibbs has been appointed the chairman of Sotheby’s India, Middle East and North Africa. This follows on the heels of rival auction house Christie’s starting India operations in 2013.

While Sotheby’s has held several auctions of Indian modern and contemporary art, the international auction house has decided to expand its engagement with both Indian art collectors and Indian art. The recognition of India’s growth rate of a little over 7% can be cited as an important reason why international auction houses are looking towards the country as not just an emerging art market, but one for luxury products.

A few modern and contemporary Indian artworks by Amrita Sher-Gil, Jehangir Sabavala, M.F. Husain and Jogen Chowdhury were shown for a day at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. These will travel to the Asia Week in New York that begins on 9 September. On 6 October, Sotheby’s London will show and sell a collection of 120 Indian miniatures owned by UK-based collector Sven Gahlin.

Gibbs and Mathew said there will be no auction in India in the immediate future. Gibbs spoke about the company’s plans. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell us about Sotheby’s entry into India. Why now?

We feel that the timing is perfect because we have observed a very vibrant art scene here—the museums, galleries, foundations and an expanding client base. We see Indian buyers, both residents in India and outside India, engaging Sotheby’s for the first time. We’ve seen a 10% growth in the number of our Indian clients last year, so the stars are aligned. Year by year we see that sort of incremental growth. Now just seems right for us as a company. We’ve identified a great candidate—Priyanka Mathew, who’s going to lead the troops. She’s trained in our New York office and she’s a specialist in her field with a background in finance. Her skill set is ideal and just what we’re looking for.

Will Sotheby’s make a mark auctioning contemporary Indian art?

Yes, contemporary art is hugely important. It’s important to our global business, and it’s important to India. Author Philip Hook in his talk (titled How much is it worth, 10 questions that establish the value of a painting and organized by Sotheby’s on 1 September in Mumbai) said that the axis in the art market has shifted in the last 20 years. Earlier, old masters were the centre; now that space is occupied by international contemporary art. He mentioned how the record for Francis Bacon was £3 million 20 years ago and now the record is £120 million. So, contemporary artist becomes a modern artist becomes an old master. So, in terms of prices, maybe the smart money could be in contemporary in its cooled-off phase at the moment. I’m sure there are lots of opportunities. That’s why Sotheby’s comes in, with our experience of the market over decades—centuries even—so we can direct collectors.

What is the nature of the Indian client?

The Indian client base are primarily buyers, not sellers. Investment is one of the factors that the collector would look at when stepping into the market. But our business is driven by passion. Indian buyers usually start with Indian art—modern and antiquities. It might be helpful to provide another classification, because the art market is not a monolithic structure. It’s many different markets, actually. I’ve come up with a taxonomy which is: patrimony, luxury and trophy, and these are sort of glib classifications. By patrimony, I’m referring to objects of cultural legacy, things that resonate with an individual because they have some sort of notional, cultural or national association. Luxury is the obvious—the watches, things for the home, and trophies are what we sell in Evening Sales in New York or London, which are $10 millon and upwards, the blue-chip artists which have a cache of international recognition. It could be a (Claude) Monet, a (Peter Paul) Rubens, for instance.

Do you feel Indian buyers can be a collector base of world art?

What we observe not just in India, but in other markets like Russia, South America and the Middle East that new buyers tend to come into the market in their own national category. They tend to buy into cultural legacy objects. In India, this would be Indian modern and contemporary art, and Indian classical art. Then they typically graduate to other categories, maybe the luxury categories such as jewellery, watches, cars, maybe realty, and then from there some of those collectors will go on to develop their taste into the global market—the impressionists, the old masters, the trophies from the Evening Sales.

You have said earlier of Islamic art that you could build a sensational collection of medieval Islamic ceramics—a world-class, museum-quality collection—for below their long-term value. The Islamic art market has also been called an emotional market. Is this true of the Indian contemporary art market?

Volatility in the market is connected to fluctuation of emotion. Now, medieval Islamic pottery and Indian contemporary art are chalk and cheese. In the contemporary market you have an index of listed prices. You can look up what a certain image painted in a certain medium and size, what has it achieved at an auction. There is no such index for (classical or medieval works).

As far as building a collection for below its long-term value—this is true. There are lots of niche markets driven by passionate individuals who can be quite whimsical in their collecting patterns. You could have two individuals who start building a collection at the same time and they drive the prices up and then maybe they complete their collection or want something else, and then prices settle down again. So, in the Islamic art market, you do get spikes, which to the outside observer are inexplicable. And those spikes are basically the idiosyncrasies of a small group of private buyers, who may in one sale buy 20 pieces and in the next, not even one.

One senses a real emotional connection of Indian buyers (with what they collect). People are very proud of what they have, they like to show it, and responsive to appreciation of what they’re doing. Indian contemporary as an auction category is less than 20 years old. That’s a relatively less mature market compared to antiquarian books that dates back to the 1700s. The building blocks are here. India has a very long history of collecting, and patronage of artistic production. It’s one of the materially richest countries in the world. Look at the tradition of textiles, traditional Indian architecture and the southern Indian tradition of bronze sculpture—these are some of the great traditions in the world with deep roots. There’s also a long history of consumption for sure. What is relatively new is the auction. It’s about educating people on how to engage with the auction house, and participate in sales.

When will you hold the first auction in India?

That’s more of a long-term project. At the moment, we are looking at the landscape here. We are building from the foundations upwards. We see education is absolutely key to broadening the client base, so we will bring experts from New York, London, Paris and Geneva, Hong Kong, to give lectures. We will do more travelling exhibitions. We also have our own in-house Sotheby’s Institute, which has very well-attended and oversubscribed courses. This is a franchise, and whether they come here is a decision of the institute, but certainly we want to introduce education programmes. You see a lot of hunger for that here.

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