Thursday, July 08, 2004

international canvas

With new records set by international auction prices, coupled with heists and forgeries, the verdict is in: Indian art is sizzling hot.

By Shailaja Neelakantan
(This article appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review in July 2004).

AT CHRISTIE'S New York auction last September, Indian painter Tyeb Mehta's Celebration went for a whopping $317,500, while 89-year-old maestro Maqbool Fida Husain sold his painting of bulls for $107,550. That's not all. At Sotheby's March auction in New York this year, the late Francis Newton Souza's Mystic Repast sold for $153,600. Closer to home, 76-year-old Akbar Padamsee's Head brought in $68,000 at Christie's March auction in Hong Kong. And in May, 82-year-old abstract painter Sayed Haider Raza set a new domestic record when his Bindu Bija-Mantra was sold for 6.8 million rupees ($147,800) in an on-line auction on, a Mumbai-based art portal and trading company.

With half a dozen Indian artists crossing the $100,000 barrier, thieves and forgers have also sprung into action. In the latest heist, in mid-May, burglars removed more than 30 canvases stocked at Sahitya Kala Parishad's New Delhi art gallery from their frames, rolled them up and escaped. Earlier, two paintings sold by a Mumbai gallery as the work of 64-year-old revered painter Anjolie Ela Menon's were found to be forgeries. The discovery shook the Indian art scene. Gallery owners, however, say these are the growing pains of a budding art industry that lacks the documentation of artistic works found in more developed markets. And the incidents have helped to generate the kind of buzz that money can't buy, making Indian artwork "hot property" in more ways than one.

Why now? The obvious answer, in India, is the economy. The middle class is growing fast and has more disposable income than before. Also, says Sonia Ballaney of New Delhi's Vadehra Gallery, "there is a better, upper-middle class, where the awareness and interest is much more."

But as the Christie's and Sotheby's auctions demonstrate, international interest in Indian art is also growing. "International interest in Indian art began with auctions in the mid-1990s in London and New York by both Christie's and Sotheby's," says Mallika Sagar, Christie's representative in India. Since then, adds Sagar, there has been a continuing effort by both Christie's and Sotheby's and several smaller auction houses in the international market, as well as more gallery and museum shows.

"Over the last five years there have been many international exhibitions," echoes Dinesh Vazirani, founder of That has resulted in an increased international awareness of Indian art, he says. Nonresident Indians, or NRIs, "have accumulated wealth, and art seems to be a bridge to them to their home country." Sagar agrees, commenting that "NRIs are the strongest sector of the market in numbers and dollars spent," and noting that there are important collectors in the United States, Britain, Hong Kong and Singapore. But interest isn't limited to ethnic Indians. The buyer of Mehta's Celebration, for instance, was not of Indian origin.

Business is also being helped by greater openness in the market. In the past, collectors found it difficult to buy Indian art as the domestic scene was governed by "who knows whom," says Sagar. Tough foreign-exchange rules also hindered purchases. "Now [buyers] have access to works on the open market. It's a more transparent process, they can look at good-quality work, a range of work and the logistics of buying are easy."

The Internet has played a big role in making the process more transparent, says Vazirani, and has given buyers access to data that drives home art's value as an investment. As there are usually more collectors than connoisseurs in the art world, it's no surprise the surging interest in modern Indian art is at least partly fuelled by financial considerations.

"Because of hard public-auction data, people are convinced it's a good investment," says Vazirani. "[Prices for] Indian art increased about 20%, compounded annually, over the last 40 years . . . We've been approached by many wealth-management companies to find out how they can put a percentage of their clients' money into art, like they do into commodities or stocks."

So far, almost all the works that have approached or broken the $100,000 barrier are by artists from the Progressive Group, which emerged at the time of India's independence in 1947 and began the modernist movement in India. The group's founding members include luminaries like Souza, Raza, Husain and the late Krishnaji Howlaji Ara and Hari Ambadas Gade, who sought to break away from realism. The second-generation members include Mehta, Padamsee and Ram Kumar, who transform landscapes into abstract shapes. Like Europe's modernists, the progressives rebelled against traditional techniques. "Today we paint with absolute freedom for content and technique," reads the group's 1948 manifesto.

Apart from its intrinsic qualities, art by the Progressive Group is increasing in value as the members age and their productivity wanes, creating a shortage of supply as demand heats up. Several members have already died and the rest are in their 70s and 80s. Another reason for the increased value is that the buyers' profile has changed, says Vazirani. Since the late 1990s, more young buyers have emerged with more daring tastes.

Beyond the Progressives, gallery owners are excited about artists like 67-year-old Arpita Singh, who is concerned with female identity, and Anjolie Ela Menon, who was trained in Mumbai and at the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts in Paris. Also attracting interest are Jogen Chowdhury, seen as a "magical realist," and K.G. Subramanyan, who have sold works for as much as $25,000. Younger buyers, looking for investments that could potentially generate a high return for a smaller initial outlay, are paying "aggressive" prices for works by artists who are now in their 30s and 40s, says Vazirani.

Outside India, Talwar Gallery in New York promotes avant-garde Indian artists to a global contemporary audience and counts major museums and Western art collectors amongst its clients. "Art has to stand on its own to engage in a wider dialogue with a global audience and not get quarantined by the passport of the artist," says Deepak Talwar, who opened the gallery six years ago in Manhattan. Talwar points to the way that works by Indian artists, such as the distilled minimalism of Nasreen Mohamedi, "resonate with issues that traverse cultural barriers and have found an audience in the West at affordable prices. An entire exhibition of these artists can be collected for the price of a single work of their contemporaries in the West." Talwar Gallery's exhibitions attract mostly non-Indians and the visitors include curators from The Whitney Museum of American Art, Smithsonian Museum, The Hirschorn Museum and The Museum of Modern Art.

This is just the beginning, if other Asian markets are anything to go by. According to Sagar at Christie's, the major established artists from India's Progressives are still hovering around the $100,000 barrier, while their counterparts in the older art markets of the region--like China and Southeast Asia--are selling works for $250,000-750,000. Chinese and Southeast Asian art commands higher prices, Sagar says, "because they have been in the auction circuit much longer than Indian art," and "developed strong and long-standing support from Indonesian and Chinese collectors." That's a good sign for collectors of Indian art.