The Art Market Slump
In 2006, investment in the Indian art market, just in terms of art funds, was estimated at $2.5 billion by various market pundits and publications. Then the market crashed in 2008 with some players incurring debts of up to Rs 150 crore. That was the first jolt, but the market made a slow recovery and prices stabilised by 2011. In 2012, when the economies of the US and UK were hard hit, everyone turned to India and China as the new venues for trading. This is substantiated by the buzz created at auctions, with Moderns like Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain leading about 80 per cent of the sales. Analysts like Art Market Monitor and Theartstrust.com have recorded these changes. While all major art players are making reassuring noises about the scenario, it is time to take stock. Is the Indian art market sick or healthy?
“I believe the art market is definitely going through a period of re-calibration, but this must be seen within the context of the world economic scenario, which is on wobbly ground,” says Maithili Parekh, director, business development, India, of Sotheby’s auction house.
Whether it’s raising the paddle at a physical auction and outbidding the richest person in the room or logging onto the internet and out-muscling a host of anonymous buyers at an online auction, the experience of bidding for art is thrilling. In today’s bleak economy, though, impulse buying at auctions seems to be a thing of the past. We are told the art collector is now ‘armed with information’, is ‘more cautious’ and yes, more ‘serious’ about collecting art. Good, bad or ugly is another matter, but the art barometer continues to bob up and down, settling sometimes on the lower side of the scale.
Unlike the primary market of art galleries, which usually take a summer sabbatical, auction houses, which underpin the secondary market, have been doing business through the summer—given that their presence is global.
In the current scenario, even established auction houses like Saffronart, India’s biggest and most thriving online art portal, are innovating by putting affordable art up for auction, like prints, drawings and photographs, besides canvases that are more modestly priced than before. The results of the last season of auctions haven’t been appalling, but they haven’t been stellar either. There is a distinct dip in the art market, characterised by a marked correction in prices of even favourites like Tyeb Mehta, Syed Haider Raza, Francis Newton Souza and Maqbool Fida Husain. They are no longer commanding the prices they were known for in the recent past.
For instance, Mehta’s 1996 Untitled oil on canvas (59X49 inches) fetched a paltry Rs 3 crore at the last auction held by Mumbai-based online auction house Asta Guru Modern Indian Art, which ended on 13 July. His previous record was Rs 10.4 crore for Mahishasura (1996) at the Christie’s auction in London that concluded on 12 June.
Husain’s work titled Iron and Steel, a large canvas (51x17.5 inches) that was featured in the same online auction, sold at a measly Rs 30 lakh, whereas his Blue Lady fetched Rs 77.7 lakh at Bonham’s Auction of Modern and Contemporary South Asian on 7 June in London’s New Bond Street. The Asta Guru Modern Indian Art auction reported four unsold works by Souza, a hot favourite whose 1987 work The Pieta acrylic on canvas, had an opening bid of Rs 110, 41,875 at Artnet auctions just this February.
Vickram Sethi, director of Asta Guru, says, “The pricing of an artwork depends not just on the artist, but on the time period, style and demand of the artwork. This [Untitled] painting by Tyeb is an early work and marks the beginning of his genre ‘Diagonals and Falling Figures’. The Kali and Mahishasura series is known for drawing bigger prices,” he says. Clearly, just having a big name is not enough, the quality and importance of the work is vital to its fetching a good price.
Taking heed of the current scenario, Saffronart began the monsoon season with An Absolute Auction. This was a one-day auction of affordable art, including graphic prints and photographs, all with a ‘beginning’ price of just Rs 5,000. “This auction has no reserve prices, where each lot is won by the highest bidder at the time of closing,” says Dinesh Vazirani, director of Saffronart. The auction featured 110 lots by leading Indian photographers, printmakers and sculptors, including VS Gaitonde, Chintamoni Kar, Raghu Rai and Zarina Hashmi. Of course, while the starting bid was cleverly designed to lure new bidders into the fray, the Gaitonde etching finally went for Rs 1.37 lakh.
“Since the first downturn in 2009, which saw the art market’s soaring prices being corrected, the recovering art market is being led by collectors and not speculators looking to make a quick buck. The market is currently a mature one and buyers have armed themselves with information before casting their bid. As a result, there is very little impulse buying,” according to Saffronart’s Vazirani.
In March, Sotheby’s made history when a work by SH Raza went unsold. The work is titled Village with Church, 1958, oil on canvas, and was priced at Rs 12.5 crore. Owned by Mr and Mrs John D Rockefeller III, one of America’s most well-known families who collect art, it received much hype, but the hammer did not come down on the canvas at the auction held in New York.
“There were mixed results in this sale. While we are disappointed that the ‘Rockefeller Raza’ did not sell, we are in substantive discussions for a private sale and I am confident that the painting will find a new home,” says Priyanka Mathew, a South Asian specialist of Sotheby’s in New York.
Maithili Parekh is more reflective in her analysis as she sums up the current low that seems to have hit the market—especially after the highs of 2005 and also 2010—with the supply of stellar quality masterworks by progressive artists such as Ram Kumar, MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta and others decreasing. “I believe this is still a good time to buy extraordinary works of good provenance and in good condition,” says Parekh. “Contemporary talent in this country is also astonishing and this may be a good time to acquire young, fresh artists that are affordable and relate to our times,” she says, indicating a price bracket of Rs 5,000 to Rs 40,000.
As the art fraternity emerges from its summer coma to mingle, network and blow life back into what has essentially become a rather sluggish art market, I played fly-on-the wall at some of the art openings where important collectors hold their wine glasses and laugh masterfully, younger artists network and gallery managers are seen rushing around balancing on pencil heels and persuading possible buyers to loosen their purse strings.
Some of the better known galleries in Delhi agree that managing the day-to-day functioning of a gallery can be more enervating than doing a once-a-year art event, like the Art Fair or Skoda Art Prize. Galleries also have higher overheads than an online art auction house. It is no wonder then that galleries are usually the hardest hit by a slowing down of the art market.
In 2009, when Bodhi Art Gallery, one of the biggest players to take Indian art to the international art market, closed down its chain of galleries in Delhi, Singapore, New York, Berlin and Mumbai, many thought it would sound the death knell for other smaller galleries. It did for some, but it was the serious and committed galleries like Chemould Prescott, Project 88, Guild and Gallery Maskara that held out. In 2012, the scenario is slightly different. There is not as much panic and it’s heartening to see that even the newer galleries that entered during the boom time of the Art Fair in February 2012 are holding out.
“It is important at this stage to plan exhibitions that will appeal to collectors. It is completely a buyer’s market, and for the sake of the artist and everyone involved, exhibitions should be of good quality and priced very well for them to be successful,” says Roshini Vadehra, director of Vadehra Art Gallery, which only recently opened its third outlet in Defence Colony in Delhi during the boom. In fact, the Vadehras are not the only ones expanding. Riding the buoyant wave, over four new galleries opened in the months following the Art Fair—in Lado Sarai, the Qutub-Mehrauli stretch and Shahpur Jat in Delhi.
Now that the excitement, hype and flurry of activity that one saw during the Art Fair has died down, important players have a plan. Some are turning to innovative events like talks, residencies and seminars, most are offering wallet-friendly prices and many are banking on their most trustworthy and saleable names among Moderns and Contemporaries.
Tunty Chauhan, whose gallery Threshold is located in Lado Sarai, the art district in Delhi that mixes working class charm with high-end art, believes that serious galleries have survived because of sustained but cautious buying. “The hype around art has died down and in a sense that is good. The serious artists will survive, because they do not create [art] for the market, and also it’s time for a reality check on pricing,” Chauhan says. Myna Mukherjee, director of Engendered Space, a trans national arts and human rights organisation that has been grafted from New York as a gallery and residency space, says that she is here to establish a presence and not to merely flirt with the Indian art market.
“We would like to introduce a bilateral flow of ideas in art between Western and non-Western cultures, and also expose the Indian art market to diaspora artists who are politically relevant globally. Just being a contemporary artist is no longer enough, one has to also be relevant,” she says, pointing out that one of her artists, Simeen Farhat, featured in her ongoing exhibition Can You See Me, had been commissioned by the London Mayor’s Office and British Telecommunications to do a public art project for the just concluded London Olympics.
Also, artist Raghava KK, who debuted in the US with Engendered and recently sold at an auction for $250,000, has broken into mainstream American pop consciousness with album covers for icons Paul Simon and others. “We have a loyal following of emerging collectors who have been supporting Engendered’s artists for years now,” says Mukherjee.
She says New York has still to recover faith in the Indian Contemporaries after the first big collapse in 2009. The prevailing market mostly represents a sustained interest in the Modern masters. “After Bodhi shut in 2009, Bose Pacia followed in 2011 and then Guild. All largely concentrated on Contemporaries. The galleries and auction houses that have prevailed are mostly those that rely on a mixture of Contemporaries and Moderns.”