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‘I am essentially a treasure hunter’

With Sotheby’s setting up an India office, regional director Priyanka Mathew talks about the huge potential here

November 07, 2015 04:10 pm | Updated 07:39 pm IST

Priyanka Mathew: ready with the hammer.

Priyanka Mathew: ready with the hammer.

Priyanka Mathew was recently appointed Regional Director, Sotheby’s India. After many years as a banker, she decided to enter the world of fine arts, and became the first South Asian auctioneer for the auction house in 2012. Excerpts from an interview:

Economics, theatre, gallerist, curator, auctioneer, now with Sotheby’s. This has been an interesting journey. How did it happen?

It’s certainly been an interesting road to where I am today both professionally and personally. Growing up in Delhi, I had an equal curiosity for math and the arts. I enjoyed the rational nature, inference and logic of math, which is why I majored in Economics. [But] throughout high school and undergrad, I also robustly participated in drama, debate and music. When I first graduated, I went to work for an investment bank in New York, Lehman Brothers; shortly after that, I joined a few friends who were starting a theatre company, Off-Broadway. After a few years at Lehman, I moved on to Goldman Sachs and as my career developed, there came a point at which I knew if I stayed any longer, I’d probably be a banker for life. So I decided to take a sabbatical for a year or two and joined an art gallery in Manhattan that exhibited Modern Indian art. That was 2005, when the market for Indian art was just taking off.

Today, I am on the cusp of the most exciting professional challenge in my career — taking on this new role for Sotheby’s and helping promote our brand and develop our business locally in one of the most exciting growth areas in the world.

Who is Priyanka Mathew, the person?

I love food, good movies, good music and creative ventures in general that stimulate one to try things in new ways. I try to be creative in how I dress, seeking primarily versatility and comfort. I love pairing things in new ways. I work in the art world and the way I dress is an extension of that search for interesting forms of expression, if you will. Home for me is a sanctuary, where I put up my feet and enjoy a good book or a great piece of music. I enjoy entertaining because cooking is a great way to share love; hosting friends and having salon-style evenings. Stimulating conversations come from meeting people who have different careers and different interests. I love travelling and am lucky to do a lot of that for work. Essentially, my profession is one of a treasure hunter because I travel to fascinating places and have met the most interesting people in the search for paintings for our auctions.

A lot is said about the India-Pakistan divide. More is known about Indian art, but Pakistan also has a vibrant culture. Are there differences?

Contemporary Pakistani art was something I discovered from my time working at the gallery I ran in Manhattan. I met through mutual friends a wonderful gallerist from Pakistan, Sanam Taseer, who has now become one of my best friends. She invited me to Lahore and when I travelled there in 2008, it was a deeply emotional trip. I have been intrigued by Pakistan since I was very young and I belong to that community of people who wonder how our country would have been had the Partition never happened. I went with Sanam to many artists’ studios as well as the National College of Arts, the premier institution for arts education and was completely overwhelmed with the quality, thoughtfulness and sophistication of Pakistani art.

I travelled to Lahore every year after that for a period trying to better familiarise myself with the art. The National College of Arts in Lahore is known for its training in miniature painting. Students there, however, use that to create contemporary expressions. Strife and uncertainty are fertile hotbeds for inspiring dialogues that question the status quo and the art that is created in Pakistan is a strong platform to express views around that. It does feel different from art created in India as I think the underlying experiences of artists in both places are different. In India you tend to find much more large-format work and perhaps more Western influences. Both places have wonderful contemporary art to offer.

Indian art is a very attractive area for the future. Why? What kind of art would this be?

The art scene in India has never been more vibrant and this feeds into artistic creativity, so it will be exciting to see what will be created. There are new galleries, museums, and initiatives emerging all the time that are engaging more people than ever before. The crowds at art events earlier this year show there is a real hunger for the sort of international outlook that Sotheby’s offers. At our auctions in London in early October, we set four new artist’s records for Modern and Contemporary South Asian Art, which demonstrates that collecting tastes are broadening and that the canon for Indian art is expanding to include new masters as well as artists working in different media such as sculpture.

Much attention has been paid to installation art but does it have lasting value?

Installation art today is a departure from two-dimensional expression, in the same way that conceptual art is — more about the idea that the object offers. Some of India’s greatest contemporary artists work in this style; the most noted is Subodh Gupta whose iconic steel vessels have been organised in art installations around the globe and have entered some of the world’s most noted collections. Installation art is a relatively new style, so it remains to be seen how individual artists will be viewed in centuries to come. However, every art movement has its place in history and this one will definitely remain important in the years to come.

What are your plans for India now?

India is a major priority, as we see enormous potential to increase the scale and scope of what we do in the country. By opening an office and recruiting staff to enable us to support a full calendar of events, we plan to connect a greater number of new and existing collectors in India with our global network of specialists and auctions.

Sotheby’s plans to increase our educational offerings as our previous initiatives in this area — utilising the in-house world-class expertise Sotheby’s has to offer — have been very popular with clients.

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