When Christie’s set up its representative office in Mumbai in 1994, it was the first international auction house to enter India. In the 25 years since, the auction house has seen its fair share of highs and lows. It has enabled record prices to be set for many Indian modernists —the top eight in the South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art category were achieved at Christie’s, including an untitled work by modernist V.S. Gaitonde, which sold for a record ₹29.3 crore in 2015 in Mumbai.
A couple of years ago, Christie’s brought its live auctions in India to a close, but its specialists continue to seek out collections and sellers of Indian art through their Mumbai branch. As part of the 25th anniversary, Christie’s is preparing for a sale of South Asian modern and contemporary works in New York on 11 September. Lounge spoke to Sonal Singh, managing director of Christie’s India, on the auction house’s association with the Indian art market and the challenges ahead. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What have been Christie’s defining moments in India?
One of the biggest moments would be the first auction (in 2013). I was head of sale at that time and it was a big challenge and achievement. We could show that we are part of Christie’s and not just a small regional office.
Our first auction was attended by almost a thousand people. But we don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. We are also aiming for continuity. As the market has grown, there are a number of opportunities for us to be engaged with our collectors in India through our own events and through the India Art Fair, Serendipity Arts Festival, Mumbai Gallery Weekend, Luxury Lifestyle Mumbai, and so on.
We have also kept in mind that India is much bigger than Mumbai or Delhi. It has been incredibly rewarding to travel and see collections to understand what people are looking at in smaller cities such as Chennai and Ahmedabad.
It has been a couple of years since Christie’s live auctions closed down in India. Do you see a difference in the Indian art sales that happened here and the ones that happen now in New York?
Maybe. By and large, however, anyone who has been a serious buyer has been abroad. And, unfortunately, what we have found is that in India, whenever we sold things of high value, they all went abroad, even in the case of very high-level bidding by an NRI (non-resident Indian). However, I am happy to say that most of the people transacting with us in India have moved on with us to our New York or Hong Kong or London auctions.
Will the global economic slowdown affect the auction market? How is Christie’s preparing for it?
I think it’s a buyers’ market, so it’s a good time to collect. Art, and even wine, has been a good place to store your wealth. It is also something you can view and look at, not like a share that you can never see. But, like any market, you have to go in with full knowledge. You can’t suddenly say you are going to buy art. And we saw that in 2006-08, when lots of people started art funds and bought loads of works at high prices. I am not sure if all those art funds did well.
Christie’s has been around since 1766 and there have been a number of (economic) cycles. What we have seen at Christie’s, if anything, is that—and I hope there is no reason to see a recession again—people don’t buy if they don’t want to spend, but the value of the work stays. If we do see a recession, like we did in 2009, there was a correction in estimates for a few months. And we are back up to the same prices they were selling in 2007 or more. We didn’t have $4 million (around ₹28.4 crore now) paintings back in 2009, so, if anything, we are doing stronger now.
In recent years, a number of smaller auction houses have entered the Indian art market. Older auction houses have expanded their online sales and are also experimenting with niche categories. How does Christie’s view this competition?
Competition is always a good thing and we can’t be the only people in the market. Platforms and organizations come together to create an art community and I am happy to see that there is activity. It means the market is growing and that the art collector base is growing. Instead of thinking that your two collectors will go to another auction house, you have to hope that you will have another 20.
We are the biggest art business globally since 1999 and our turnover last year was $7 billion. I am not here to compare us with the other auction houses.
Modernists such as Gaitonde and Tyeb Mehta have ruled the Indian art market. Do you think there are artists whose works have been undervalued?
We have seen great results for artists such as Hemen Majumdar last year and this year, but for older artists it is also a matter of what is available and there is a limited number of works and a limited number who want to sell. I really think the opportunity lies with contemporary art and collectors should look at it more. While Christie’s doesn’t offer a lot of contemporary art, we have works of senior artists that have come up, such as Atul Dodiya, Arpita Singh or Rameshwar Broota.
Collectors can even look at younger artists, such as Nikhil Chopra. And these are artists whose careers you can follow, so I am surprised that more people aren’t looking at them. The fact that I can go to N.S. Harsha and ask him why he made a certain figure is amazing. Even Sudhir Patwardhan. Their values can be as high as modernists.
Will Christie’s plan a sale in India in the near future?
We are not closed to it but it is not planned at the moment. If it’s a collection that can’t be exported, then we may.