The auction house is banking on young buyers and eclectic art offerings
International auction house Sotheby’s established its India office in 2015. Two years later, it seems to have made an important breakthrough in the country, despite a slow economy and a weak art market.
“I’d say that 30 to 40 years ago, the Indian miniatures segment was dominated by buyers from outside India—North America and Europe principally,” says Edward Gibbs, chairman, Sotheby’s India and Middle-East. Since 2011, things have begun to change.
In the last six years, the auction house has held three major auctions of Indian miniatures; in 2011, 2015 and 2016. The first one totalled US$ 48 million. “For the first time, we saw growing interest from Indian buyers. It seemed to be kindling,” says Gibbs.
The 2015 sale collection doubled its presale estimate, and saw active interest and participation from Indian buyers. Last year, the largest number among the Top 10 buyers were Indians. “This is a very major, discernible trend in that particular market,” says Gibbs.
Sotheby’s is working hard to generate excitement in the Indian modern and contemporary art segments as well. In March 2016 in New York, many of the Top 10 lots, including the works of MF Husain and Raja Ravi Verma, were either bought or underbid by collectors in India. “What we are doing here is strengthening the bond that we have with top collectors, while our colleagues are working on getting newer people interested,” says Yamini Mehta, international head of modern and contemporary South Asian Art, Sotheby’s. “That’s quite exciting. We hope to see a resurgence of the Indian modern and contemporary market.
The weak economy hasn’t bothered their clientele much, even with demonetisation, they say. “It almost doesn’t matter to clients who are buying miniatures or modern and contemporary artworks,” says Mehta. “They are interested in what we have to offer—the most exquisite, discovered works, or those that come from private collections, which haven’t been seen for 20, 30, 40 years. That’s what’s creating excitement across the board at auctions.”
In fact, Sotheby’s says that most of their modern and contemporary art buyers are of Indian origin, but from across the globe. This bracket includes NRIs in Singapore, London, California, Hong Kong and Dubai, who compete against each other for “once-in-a-lifetime opportunities”.
A live auction, however, is not on the cards any time soon. “I think that we are observing how the maturing of the Indian art market plays out,” says Mehta.
In fact, after four annual live auctions in Mumbai, international auction house Christie’s decided to discontinue them in the country, citing low sales.
What Sotheby’s plans to do instead is introduce a range of events, travelling exhibitions and educational initiatives, such as short courses in contemporary art and talks by specialists. “These initiatives are laying the ground to broaden the platform and engage with more people who could turn collectors,” says Gibbs.
A key means is the digital platform, which Sotheby’s is hugely invested in. They are currently working on making the website easier for patrons to navigate, buy and bid on works. “In the past two years, the number of Indian buyers transacting online has doubled. So we are spending time building the platform; we are here for the long term,” says Gibbs.
The numbers reaffirm this. In the past five years, Indian clients have spent more than US$250 million at Sotheby’s. “That’s a very significant figure,” says Gibbs. In the same time, the number of clients has increased 151%. Of these, 32% buy outside Indian categories, such as pieces of jewellery, furniture and European and American works of art.
“The digital platform is very important to capture the young buyer. He or she will typically make his or her first purchase online,” says Gibbs. It could start with a contemporary work, he says, going on to progress to other categories like luxury, or the buyer could go back in time and look at miniatures. “It’s a broad spectrum. No two collectors’ journey is alike. Collectors are driven by passion more than reason,” says Gibbs.
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