The Indian modern and contemporary art market is flourishing even during the pandemic

While the economy has tanked during the pandemic, Indian art has not only flourished, it has set record prices

Published - October 10, 2020 04:00 pm IST

Buoyant: Amrita Sher-Gil’s ‘Little Girl’, which sold for ₹18.6 crore

Buoyant: Amrita Sher-Gil’s ‘Little Girl’, which sold for ₹18.6 crore

On September 3, 2020, a new record was set in the Indian art world. A 1974 untitled V.S. Gaitonde oil was auctioned by Pundole’s in Mumbai for ₹32 crore. The unnamed international buyer bought the 60x40 inch work remotely, over the phone, in what is fast becoming the norm in these times of pandemic.

The art belonged to the Glenbarra Art Museum in Japan, owned by businessman and collector Masanori Fukuoka who has one of the largest collections of modern Indian art. It broke the record variously held by another Gaitonde that fetched ₹29.3 crore at a Christie’s auction in Mumbai in 2015; Raza’s Tapovan , which fetched ₹29.03 crore at another Christie’s auction held in New York in 2018; and by Amrita Sher-Gil’s The Little Girl in Blue that fetched ₹18.6 crore at a New York auction in 2015.

The Pundole’s sale is only one of several successful online auctions of 2020. In an economy that has largely suffered during the pandemic, the Indian modern and contemporary art market has not only flourished, it has set record prices compared to previous years.

200 online auctions

According to Ishrat Kanga, Deputy Director and Specialist, Head of Sale at Sotheby’s London, the first half of 2020 has seen $575 million in private art sales worldwide, up by 10% from last year.

Sotheby’s latest auction of Indian artwork, Modern and Contemporary South Asian

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde’s untitled painting that fetched ₹29.3 crore

Vasudeo S. Gaitonde’s untitled painting that fetched ₹29.3 crore

Art, was in London on September 29, and featured 16 unpublished works, including pieces by Gaitonde and Ram Kumar as well as Bhupen Khakhar’s 1971 Portrait of Shri Shankerbhai V. Patel Near Red Fort . The last was estimated at ₹4.3 crore and sold for ₹19.17 crore. Khakhar, of course, had a huge exhibition at Tate Modern in 2016, lending more visibility to not just the artist but to Indian art in general in the U.K.

An important aspect at this juncture, as much as the quantum of sales, is the audience adapting to the changing ways in which art is now viewed. “We have held almost 200 online auctions so far in 2020, four times the number last year. And 88% of all bidders at Sotheby’s in the first half of 2020 were online, over a third of the online buyers were new patrons, and over 25% of our buyers worldwide were under 40,” says Kanga.

Art as comfort

Last month, artist Waswo X. Waswo had an online party and artist walkthrough, followed by a Q&A, for the opening of his new show at Gallery Latitude 28 in New Delhi. The audience, he says, was global. “A lot of sales happen during the opening, when people meet each other and in the general euphoria, ask gallery owners to save artworks for them. That’s not happening now. So, we held an online opening, and more than a hundred people joined in, from Pakistan, Switzerland, Delhi and Goa.”

S.H. Raza’s ‘Tapovan’, which fetched ₹29.03 crore

S.H. Raza’s ‘Tapovan’, which fetched ₹29.03 crore

In August, Kolkata’s Victoria Memorial Hall and New Delhi’s DAG Museums jointly organised ‘An Inheritance of Imaginations’, one of the largest online exhibitions where, probably for the first time, a vast selection of paintings by Rabindranath Tagore and Gaganendranath, Abanindranath and Sunayani Devi Tagore was displayed and discussed.

The positive response to online viewings and auctions has taken artists and gallerists alike by surprise. Says Roshni Vadehra, director of Vadehra Art Gallery in New Dehi, “We thought it would be extremely challenging to convince people to buy art during such uncertain times, but the response has been quite amazing. One reason could be that people are at home. They’re not spending on vacations, so they spend on art or they look at art as a source of comfort.”

No government support

Galleries are also going out of their way to connect with collectors. ‘In Touch’ is an online collaboration between 10 galleries in India and Dubai, where they pool exhibitions, knowledge, audiences and share prices. Another collective of 15 galleries has come together on a platform called TAP India, started by Sharan Apparao of Chennai’s Apparao Galleries, to hold exhibitions, talks and online events once a month. Vadehra Art Gallery and Nature Morte in Delhi have refurbished their online shops and Sotheby’s has added a ‘Buy Now’ section on its website.

The buoyancy in sales, however, doesn’t benefit all artists equally. As Apparao points out, “For every hundred artists, only three succeed. Some have been forced to sell their works cheap because they are not like galleries or collectors who have a cushion.” Waswo, who works with miniature artists in Udaipur, concurs. “I have told the artists who work with me that I can pay them for 12-18 months but other miniature artists, who supply to tourist shops, are selling tea to feed their families.”

There is also the matter of non-existent government support. Unlike many other countries, in India, there are no tax breaks or subsidies for artists and craftsmen. Art attracts some of the highest taxes at 12% GST and an import duty of nearly 15%. Apparao says there are many ways in which both the government and collectors can help build up the art market. “It’s not only about sales,” she says. “You’re also talking of collectors building up a base of educational information and about government infrastructure. About more courses, common platforms for performing arts, and government help to struggling artists.”

The ways in which the art fraternity has banded together to create new ways to sell art during the pandemic, as well as the unexpected jump in art sales, are great gains. Ideally, this learning should be used as a springboard by the fraternity to adapt and innovate in other ways as well.

The writer is the author of a fantasy series, and specialises in art and culture of South East Asia.

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