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Updated: March 19, 2013 17:52 IST

Art looking up

DIVYA KUMAR
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Menaka Kumari Shah
The Hindu Menaka Kumari Shah

Menaka Kumari Shah, director of Christie’s, India, says the country has an emerging art market

Working at Christie’s, Mumbai isn’t quite as exciting as being at the head office of the famous auction house in King Street, London, but it has its rewards. “At King Street, you never knew when someone would walk in with a fantastic 300-year-old art object,” laughs Menaka Kumari Shah, director of Christie’s, India.

“I remember, when I was an intern in their Islamic department, the head came back in high excitement from a trip to Spain. He’d found out that the bowl in which his client kept his house keys was an ancient artefact, which had never been seen or catalogued before. It eventually sold for 2,00,000 pounds, I think.”

The Christie’s India office in Mumbai (established in 1994) doesn’t do any trading or auctioning, and since antiquities in India are off limits to international auction houses, it doesn’t deal with old, lost art. But the office does offer Indian art connoisseurs advice and help with their collections. It’s not just fine art that they help with, but decorative art in furniture, watches and even fine wine.

“There’s a lot more interest in cross-category art nowadays, not just to collect, but to use and consume,” says Menaka, who has been with Christie’s for eight years, and with the Mumbai office since 2009. “The second generation collectors have different tastes from those of their parents.”

The Christie’s team travels across the country, offering insurance valuation, advice on storage, or on building a collection, and more. That was the reason for Menaka’s recent visit to Chennai, where she gave a talk to the city’s art lovers as part of Art Chennai’s new Art Club initiative at Hyatt Regency Hotel.

Common platform

The Art Club, which got off the ground last month, aims to bring together artists and patrons, students and collectors for monthly discussions on art. This month’s event, Collecting And Connoisseurship, covered changes in the art market recently, India’s market in relation to the rest of the world, and the dos and don’ts of collecting art.

“I don’t believe that the Indian art market is under-developed,” comments Menaka. “I like to think of it as an emerging market. Given the larger problems India as a nation is facing, I think we’re doing very well.” For instance, she says, Indian spending at Christie’s last year was 30 million U.S. dollars in modern and contemporary art, jewellery and watches. “A dip in the ocean, perhaps, but still a significant amount,” she says.

Menaka’s involvement with art and with Christie’s itself goes back to her childhood, when she attended art auctions with her family. If that sounds somewhat unusual, that’s because hers wasn’t an ordinary family; Menaka, it turns out, is the Princess of Tehri-Garhwal in Uttarakhand.

“My family had a relationship with Christie’s; I was never taken to Sotheby’s, for example,” she says with a smile. “I always knew I wanted to work in art. Being told from childhood why a particular artefact has inherent artistic merit must have resonated.”

Under her directorship, she hopes that Christie’s Education can become as established in India as it is in the U.K., offering lectures, and eventually degrees, in universities. And of course, she’d like to see Christie’s begin trading in the country soon.

“That would be the next natural step and we’re investing options,” she says. “I don’t know when the first auction will be, but it’ll be very exciting.”

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