Two of the biggest auction houses in the world, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, have in recent years consolidated their presence in India, as a response to the country’s expanding and bankable art market. Bhumika Popli writes about India’s emergence in the global marketplace for buying and selling art.


Later this year, the American auction house Sotheby’s will be conducting its first event in India after a long hiatus of 26 years. It was in October 1992 that the previous India sale by Sotheby’s took place, in New Delhi. The upcoming one, under the banner “Boundless Mumbai”, will be hosted at Mumbai’s Taj Mahal Palace hotel on 29 November. Collectors can look forward to finding a wide range of artworks here, from paintings and photographs to sculptures and illustrations.

It took Sotheby’s this long to return to India because the Indian art market wasn’t yet ready for international auctions these past two decades. But now the times have changed.

Gaurav Bhatia, Managing Director, Sotheby’s India, with Tyeb Mehta’s Durga Mahisasura Mardini.

Gaurav Bhatia, managing director, Sotheby’s India, spoke to Guardian 20 about their forthcoming event. “In recent years, we’ve witnessed the ever-growing presence of Indian collectors in Sotheby’s global auctions, and now the time is right to bring our auctions directly to their doorsteps. However, this sale is just as much about engaging with a new demographic of art enthusiasts as with those seasoned collectors we know so well. There are so many possibilities in the Indian market and great potential. We are looking forward to November,” Bhatia said.

The other prominent international name in this business is Christie’s, the British auction house, which, for its part, has been scouting the Indian market for promising artworks and cash-rich collectors for many years now. Last month, they conducted a preview show in Mumbai, as a build-up for the big auction, centred on South Asian Art, that is scheduled to be held in New York on 12 September. The South Asian Modern+Contemporary Art Auction by Christie’s features artworks by the likes of Tyeb Mehta, Akbar Padamsee and Francis Newton Souza among other stalwarts.

These are clear signs that the art market in India is coming into its own, now that global auctioneers are beginning to feel bullish about the prospects. “I would say India at present has a healthy market. If you look at the recent art market report, it is quite obvious that since the [financial] crash in 2008, both auction sales and private sales of art have been growing year on year. According to Art Tactic, the South Asian art market was up 13% in 2017 and the growth in live auction sales increased about 17% the same year. South Asian art market sales in 2017 totalled $223 million and the auction market alone consisted of $118 million. Yet the Indian and South Asian art market is still very small when compared to the Western contemporary art market,” said Ishrat Kanga, deputy director, Indian and South Asian Modern and Contemporary Art, Sotheby’s, London.

The main reason for this growth is that global investors are now beginning to look east when it comes to buying artworks. There’s a renewed interest internationally, not just in the Indian modern masters but also in their artistic antecedents. Kanga said, “Apart from modern masters who always fetch a high price, we are seeing that people are getting interested in the teachers of these now-famous artists—teachers who mostly remained obscured. Figures like Jeram Patel, Piraji Sagara and so on.”

Deepanjana Klein, International Head of Classical and Contemporary Indian and Southeast Asian Art, Christie’s.

But from the investor viewpoint, the Indian art market is still at a very nascent stage, and is by no means as grand in scale as, say, the art market of China. In fact, China takes the biggest slice of the whole South Asian market for art, which, according to Sotheby’s, was worth over $2,000 million in 2017.

Few Chinese buyers, who are known to shell out big bucks on old masterpieces, have invested in Indian art yet. That may be one reason why transactions at art auctions in India have remained modest.   “Sales of multi-million pound artworks to Chinese collectors haven’t happened in the Indian art market,” said Kanga.

Although Christie’s is not planning to have any live auctions in India at the moment, they are establishing their presence on these shores with regular preview shows and other art events. “Our market is mostly global and if you have excellent works then you can sell it from anywhere in the world. We realised that our top lot usually came back to the US or Europe, so that’s when you think that while we continue to remain invested in India, we don’t actually have to have sales in India. Instead, we would rather do really nice previews and spend more time and money on nurturing the younger generations through education. We plan to have more panel discussions, talks and so on,” said Deepanjana Klein, International Head of Classical and Contemporary Indian and Southeast Asian Art, Christie’s.

(L-R) Ishrat Kanga, Deputy Director, Sale, Sotheby’s, London.; Dinesh Vazirani, CEO and co-founder, Saffronart.; Roshni Vadehra, Director, Vadehra Art Gallery.

According to Klein, international investors are willing to spend big on works by Indian modernists, as well as on antiquities discovered in this part of the world. She said, “In our most recent sale in March, the top lot of the sale was a masterpiece by Syed Haider Raza, calledTapovan, painted in 1972, which realised $4,452,500, setting a new auction record for the artist and category. In antiquities, in March the top lot was A Large and Important Silver-Inlaid Gilt Bronze Figure of Buddha, Shakyamuni, Tibet, circa 1400, which sold for three times the low estimate to an in-room bidder for $3,612,500. However, the topmost lot in antiquities that we sold was for over $24 million, a Pala Avalokiteshvara.”

International auction houses are no doubt the biggest players in the business right now. But there’s still room enough for local contenders to emerge. The Indian auctioneer Saffronart, which specialises in holding online auctions, has also made record sales over the last few years. In their Summer Online Auction, held on 13-14 June 2018, the highlight was Untitled (Kali),1989, by Tyeb Mehta, one of only three standing figures painted by him. The sale set a new world record for the artist, at Rs 26.4 crores (approximately $4 million). On 20 September, Saffronart will be conducting another live auction of modern Indian art, at Delhi’s The Oberoi hotel.  

But all this growth doesn’t come without its own set of challenges. Dinesh Vazirani, CEO, Saffronart, said, “Some of the ongoing challenges facing the art world include building infrastructure and museums. Contemporary art, which is now picking up again, needs an especially strong gallery network. In addition, the import duty on Indian paintings coming back to India, as well as the market registration and transfer of ownership for antiquities are all still difficult processes to navigate.”

Kiran Nadar, Chairperson, Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Among India’s foremost collectors, Kiran Nadar has been doing her bit to contribute to the country’s expanding museum infrastructure. She is in the process of finalising the design of her new museum in Noida. About the Indian art market she told Guardian 20, “There is an upswing here. The prices have been appreciating. When the crash happened in 2008, India and China both crashed and the prices came down substantially. But China went back to its original size and appreciated to eight or 10 times its original size. India has not grown at such a pace. But it is definitely improving.”

Roshni Vadehra, director, Vadehra Art Gallery, is hopeful about the future. “The primary market for contemporary artworks is better than the secondary market. The domestic market is very strong as a lot of young collectors have ventured into collecting. It is a great time for investing in contemporary art because the prices are quite stable. There are lots of options within contemporary art and gallerists are also encouraging collectors.”

The art critic Girish Shahane links the upswing in India’s art market with the growing Indian economy. “The growth of the Indian art market is tied to the growth of the Indian economy,” he said. “The wider economy has been growing fast for nearly 20 years and shows no sign of a serious slowdown, which augurs well for the art market.”