Hugo Weihe, former international director of Asian art at UK auction house Christie’s, joined Indian online auction house Saffronart as its chief executive officer earlier this month. Weihe has vast experience in Indian art. In 1998, he left Sotheby’s to set up the department of Indian and South-East Asian art at Christie’s. The British auction house held its first sale in India in December 2013, where a painting by V.S. Gaitonde became the highest fetching work by an Indian modernist— 23.7 crore. This sale surpassed an earlier one: Tyeb Mehta’s Mahishasura was the first to break the $1 million barrier for Indian art in 2005, and Weihe was behind that too.

We met Weihe, who divides his time between New York and Mumbai, to talk about the market for moderns, and his next big focus—on classical antiquities. Edited excerpts:

You had once said that Christie’s entry into India would help Indian art. But, typically, first-time buyers don’t come to auction houses. To drive interest, what goes on before the gavel comes down?

This is the core question that you’ve just outlined. In that first India sale in 2013, I had said that pricing makes a mark, because if the prices go up, then people start to pay attention and think, “Now I want to understand this." It raises the interest. But how do we get there? You need to explain why a piece of work is desirable. That (2013) sale did have an effect. Dinesh (Vazirani, co-founder of Saffronart) came up to me and said, “Thank you for what you did for India."

Education is the key thing. People have told me that they would love to know more about antiquities, like Chola bronzes and other medieval sculptures, so that’s the next step. By December, we plan to have a significant antiquities sale at a much higher level than has ever been done.

An auction house is the most exposed to art, in a sense. We’re the agents, and catalysts, connecting art to people. We are the ones appreciating art too. In China, the emphasis is on its great culture and that is where the (highest valued pieces) lie. The Chinese are eager to get everything back. The long-term goal is that if we can facilitate the return of Indian heritage to India, we would love to achieve it.

The auction house adds value to an artist’s work. How do you decide how much?

You could say that we put our conviction behind (an artist). We put the Saffronart brand behind it because we believe in this art. (In the case of the modernists) we’ve also had the benefit of looking at the market in all its aspects. We know now (which) of these artists are maybe not (heading) anywhere. We know which of them have fully established themselves, as it’s really hard to get (the works) now.

The second thing is that an auction house is a democratic platform. Everyone can bid. We create value there too, as sometimes there’s a notion that at a gallery, there’s preferential treatment. The old client gets first choice. Saffronart is a pioneer with online sales, which is a very powerful medium. But we need to augment that.

The other thing is culture. Artists have contributed something that we now cherish as the heritage of our nation. That’s an extraordinary thing in itself. So the people who have the money, how do we get them to understand that maybe the next step for you after you’ve got your Ferrari, and your handbag, what is the thing that you should be having? And it will make you feel proud.

I understand your push to expand the meaning of “value" to include many things that are as significant as price. Having said that, where do you stand on the matter of art as investment?

We never really say, buy art as an investment. Buy the work that you can afford, buy the best within that category. For example, it could be an (F.N.) Souza drawing, which is affordable, for 1-2 lakh. He’s a great master and one of the greatest draughtsmen of all time, in my view. If you buy the best in a category, over time it will also prove to be a good investment. I am absolutely sure of that. If you are buying a good thing, it will always remain a good thing. Because good things are rare, there’s far more mediocre material out there. And there are works that have been overlooked.

Now we can look at the lesser (-priced) modernists like K.H. Ara, who were very important at the time, but their prices aren’t at the same level (as other masters) now. Why is that? Maybe we can help them along. They did many good works too. The evolution of recognition is fascinating. There are no black and white rules to any of this.

We have seen the price of the moderns increase over the years. What further growth do you anticipate?

To be honest, I think this is still very much the beginning. Look at (Pablo) Picasso. One of his works sold for over $179 million (around 1,137 crore now) and it’s not even one of his best. We are nowhere near, price-wise. And it doesn’t make any sense. Chinese art has also reached 50, 60, 100 million-dollar levels. We should be getting there too. It might take a little bit longer. The message is it’s too cheap for what it is. Because the quality is there, the rarity of a Tyeb and Gaitonde is there—they are very hard to get. These were very meticulous, exacting artists of the highest standards.

Tell us about the Indian buyer. Is there a surge in the domestic market?

The No.1 opportunity for the Indian buyer is to buy and collect Indian art and, certainly, in India itself, that is the most logical thing. There’s not much point for an Indian buyer to buy an Impressionist painting for $170 million when you can buy a Tyeb Mehta for $2 million, which, over time, is a much more significant thing.

Everyone from the world wants to do business with India; India has a large middle class. This is an aspirational group. There is a highly educated class, which knows the history and significance of the culture and creativity of India. This to me is an extraordinary potential. Nowhere else in the world do we have (such a) condition conducive to collecting and understanding art. This is the biggest opportunity in the world.

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