Edward Gibbs, 53, joined Sotheby’s in 2003. Apart from advising private, corporate and institutional collectors across global markets, he now oversees three major auction categories: Arts of the Islamic World, Art of Imperial India, and Contemporary Arab, Iranian and Turkish Art.
An ardent collector of Indian art himself, Gibbs’s connections to India go back to 1997, when he was invited by the British Council to co-curate the exhibition Traditions of Respect: Britain and Islamic Cultures to mark the 50th anniversary of the independence of India and Pakistan. The exhibition was opened by Queen Elizabeth II in New Delhi and Lahore.
Gibbs was in Mumbai for a preview hosted by Sotheby’s for its forthcoming auctions of Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art and the Howard Hodgkin Sale scheduled in London on 25 and 24 October, respectively. The travelling exhibition held at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace hotel on 22 September showcased highlights of the sales, including pieces by Francis Newton Souza and Manjit Bawa.
Gibbs spoke to Mint about expansion plans in India, migration to digital platforms and the unique position of art in comparison with other commodities. Edited excerpts:
Does hosting travelling exhibitions have a substantial impact on the volume and overall value of your auction sales?
There is no substitute to seeing the artwork in person. People like to have something they can experience materially. We have been hosting these travelling exhibitions in India for many years now. It is also a chance for us to have quality face time with our clients. Many of them will travel to London for the sale but some may not be able to.
We typically do them twice a year: the highlights from our Fall sale in London are shown in Mumbai and the highlights from our Spring sale in New York are shown in Delhi. This balance works well for us. And this year we also introduced a strong educational component with workshops and lectures.
You also hosted a two-day workshop with instructors from the Sotheby’s Institute last year. Is that going to be a regular feature going ahead?
Yes, we feel education is key to both answering the needs of our existing clients and also engaging new clients. There are many aspects to our business, beyond the highlights we showcase here. The education programmes become a way to connect the audience here to our global sales.
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How has online bidding impacted the auction market? What percentage of buyers have graduated to the online platform?
Seasoned buyers continue to believe there’s nothing like a live auction. I don’t have the exact figures but there’s a growing trend towards telephone bidding, which offers the advantages of anonymity and confidentiality. Now it’s a percentage of the phone bidders that has migrated online; it’s buyers who like complete anonymity. There’s certainly a pattern of migration to digital media.
These tend to be younger buyers?
Exactly. A large number of buyers from the younger generation feels more comfortable bidding online. Online bidding is one of the key areas for us to engage new buyers and this is an area we’ve seen tremendous uptake in. A number of young buyers are coming to the market and characteristically they will enter through our digital platform. The number of online bidders from India has doubled in the last two years.
We’ve also been paying close attention to online-only sales. We had an online-only sale of works by Francis Newton Souza last year which performed extremely well, selling 83% by lot. It shows that people are becoming more comfortable with the online experience. Though there’ll be a few dyed in the wool conservatives like myself who’ll always be interested in being physically in the room.
Christie’s held its first, and very successful, annual sale in India in December 2013 but announced that they would discontinue it earlier this year. While Sotheby’s has always had a presence in India, you launched formally with an office space and the appointment of a managing director last September. Are these two developments related?
I can’t comment on Christie’s strategy. The decision to cancel their India sales seems to have been a result of a global restructuring. But we have our own strategy independent of our competitors’ and often it’s about what is right for us at a given time. In 2016, we felt we had a lot of momentum. We could see a growth in interest and participation from India, and we thought it was the right time to move. It was key to identify the right person and we achieved that with Gaurav Bhatia (previously marketing director at Moët Hennessy India). In tandem with India, we have recently opened an office in Dubai. I can say categorically that the two developments are unrelated.
You oversee both South Asia and the Middle East. The Middle East market is growing rapidly—you are hosting your first dedicated sale of Middle Eastern art in Asia in November. Do you see these two markets in isolation? Is there any cross-pollination?
There are various aspects to this question. Like I said, there is an office developing in Dubai in tandem. There is certainly an interconnection and not least because of the large Indian diaspora in the UAE. I meet with a lot of Indian clients in Dubai when we’re showing highlights there.
There’s a connection in the jewellery sales as well. Dubai is the epicentre of the diamond trade and the Indian jewellery trade is hugely important to our business.
To your question about buyers collecting specifically in their national categories, that is true to an extent. South Asian buyers will buy South Asian art and buyers from the Middle East will start with Middle Eastern art. If you look at figures over the last five years of Sotheby’s, our Indian clientele have spent $250 million. That figure is increasing year by year.
That is the spend by Indian buyers across all categories?
Yes, if you open up that figure, 30% of those Indian buyers are buying in non-Indian categories, which could be furniture, Impressionist painting, International Contemporary art, watches... It’s the same with the Middle East. Middle Eastern clients could start collecting in their national category through feelings of comfort but they would typically graduate into other areas or they might veer off completely and focus on luxury categories.
For your Indian clientele, after Indian Modern and Contemporary art, what are the categories of interest?
Most intense, in terms of volume and sales, it would be jewellery by a long way. Arts of the Islamic World is another important category. This includes Mughal miniatures, which are very sought after in India. It’s probably the biggest growth area for us in terms of Indian art categories.
On a global scale, how important is the Indian market for Sotheby’s?
According to the TEFAF Art Market Report for 2016, the global art market is worth $45 billion. Auction houses take up $17 billion of this pie, of which Europe is 31%, the Americas are 28% and Asia is 41%. So you can see that Asia has tipped the balance.
China claims 90% of Asian auction sales. Which still gives India around 10% of the $7 billion figure. $700 million is a substantial amount of investment in art coming out of the country.
To me what is really significant about that figure is how small India is compared to China. It offers that much more scope for growth. India has huge potential when you see it on that graph. One day, perhaps not in my lifetime, we will see India up there with China. But a lot of things need to evolve to facilitate that.
What is Sotheby’s competing with in India? When one speaks to book publishers, they say their competition is not just other publishing houses but it’s television, the Internet, it’s everything…
It’s a good question. And it’s not so easy to answer. I hesitate to say this, but art has a spiritual quality which perhaps other commodities lack, so in that sense we deal with a very special product. Our challenge is perhaps more in the luxury category (jewellery, collectibles, etc.) where we are competing with other luxury goods.
There are people who believe art is the last thing you buy—it’s after the house and the car, and the second house. It’s the final flourish. Do you agree?
(Laughs) I think that’s true but for the very reason I mentioned before art touches you in a way a car or house can’t. In that sense it’s probably the ultimate luxury. I wouldn’t even want to call it a luxury. Some collectors would describe art as a necessity. But that’s clearly not the case with everybody. For the true collector, art is beyond luxury.