LUXURYCULTURE.COM - Yamini Mehta: Indian Art Insider


The head of modern and contemporary Indian art at Christie's gave us the scoop last year on the booming Indian art market. As the market continues to expand, this interview is highly enlightening.

The brains behind the exhilarating modern and contemporary Indian art auctions at Christie's, specialist Yamini Mehta gives us the scoop on the booming Indian art market just in time for Christie's highly anticipated London sale.

If you had placed your eggs in the Indian modern and contemporary art basket during the last six years, you would have a clutch of new assets on your hands, to the tune of 70% growth. Not bad for a market that, prior to 2000, was barely a blip on the radar of the booming global art scene. Fueled by the emergence of a domestic middle-class with spending fever and revived national pride, combined with the world's collective interest in the culture behind the "fastest growing free-market democracy," Indian art is at an all-time high.

For those new to the scene, contemporary Indian art celebrated its official coming-of-age at two groundbreaking events. Still holding the record for the highest amount paid for a modern or contemporary Indian painting at auction, Tyeb Mehta's 'Mahisasasura' sold for nearly $1.6 million at Christie's in 2005, crossing the $1 million barrier in the field for the first time and simultaneously opening the floodgates for a whole new level of collectors. Shortly thereafter, Christie's record-breaking September 2006 sale saw the highest total ever for the category, at $17.8 million. Both sales, unsurprisingly, were held under the expert stewardship of Yamini Mehta, Christie's Department Head of Modern & Contemporary Indian Art. A specialist on Indian's nascent contemporary art scene, Mehta lived in New Delhi as a journalist before returning to her native New York to help create the department she now heads. From her current base in London, Mehta oversees sales from New York to Hong Kong by way of Dubai, including the highly anticipated Modern and Contemporary Indian Art sale in London this May.

Yamini Mehta's definition of luxury
A feast for the senses. The right balance between elegance and opulence.

If luxury were a person, who would it be?
The embodiment of luxury is the modern art collector, a few of whom, like their imperial predecessors, are making their mark by building collections and institutions for posterity.

If luxury were a place, where would it be?
A museum, for example the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. These temples to culture are true repositories of luxuries amassed over time. And of course Christie's, a name and place that speaks of extraordinary art, unparalleled service, and international glamour!

If luxury were a moment, when would it be?
The exhilaration of scaling a mountain peak.

If luxury were an object, what would it be?
Something bespoke, something personalized or handmade and rare.

What is generating the current boom for contemporary and modern Indian art?
A newly established social and intellectual awareness - many people have become wealthy over the past years, and with it comes a search for status symbols, but also a certain desire to "belong," to take care of the cultural and intellectual environment one is living in, to open the horizons and discover the more sophisticated and refined pleasures in life. It is a general phenomenon that we have seen happen over and over again - the renewed interest in one's own cultural heritage and one's own traditions and arts. It is very gratifying to see young collectors becoming passionate and knowledgeable about the art that represents the cultural, social, economical and intellectual evolutions in their country. With India growing fast into one of the world's new super-powers, the interest in Indian art will expand accordingly, as non-Indians have become equally intrigued and fascinated by the culture of the country.

How has the value of the Indian art market changed in the last ten years, and how do you see it maturing over time?
The last five years have shown tremendous growth in the field of modern and contemporary Indian art. In 2000, Christie's total sale of modern and contemporary Indian art was close to $600,000. In 2005, the total was $15 million, and in 2006, $42 million. Christie's has catered to the rising demand by offering more auctions in more international sites than any other auction house, with sales now scheduled for New York, Dubai, London, and Hong Kong. The demand arises from a growing awareness of art as a point of cultural pride and as an alternative asset class. Demand for the top artists still far exceeds the supply.

How does the growth of the Indian art market compare to the pace of the world art market?
Christie's overall art sales totaled £2.51 billion ($4.67 billion), a 36% increase over 2005 sales. We saw steady and strong demand throughout the year in all its salerooms and in most specialist categories - from Impressionist and modern art to post-war and contemporary art, along with an increased demand for Chinese and Indian modern and contemporary art, jewelry and watches, Russian art, Old Master pictures, furniture, decorative art and Asian art. Christie's Indian representation in Mumbai connects one of the most dynamic emerging markets with Christie's activities. Sales of modern and contemporary Indian art have grown from £331,490 ($600,000) in 2000 to a worldwide total for the category for 2006 of £23 million ($42.2 million). Christie's modern and contemporary Indian art sales in New York, Hong Kong, Dubai and now London generate a great deal of interest with Indian clients in other categories of the market. We are confident that as the Indian economy keeps developing, so will the Indian participation in the art market.

What have been the most successful works of Indian art at auction?
Christie's holds the auction record for contemporary Indian art: Tyeb Mehta's Mahisasura, 1997, sold for $1,584,000 on September 21, 2005 in New York, establishing a world auction record for any modern Indian painting, as well as a record for the artist. Christie's record-breaking sale of modern and contemporary Indian Art in September 2006 in New York saw the highest total ever in the field, at $17.8 million.

Works by the Indian Modernists: Maqbool Fida Husain, Tyeb Mehta, Syed Haider Raza, Ram Kumar, Vasudeo S. Gaitonde, and Francis Newton Souza tend to garner the highest prices. Many of these artists are known as the Bombay Progressive Artists Group (PAG), who eschewed traditional painting styles in favor of international Modernism, as influenced by Pablo Picasso, Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Cezanne and Henri Matisse. Christie's has also seen an enormous rise in prices for younger generations of artists, as well, such as Jitish Kallat, Subodh Gupta, Atul and Anju Dodiya, Shibu Natesan and Ravinder Reddy. The broader and more widely known this market becomes, the more it will open up to include artists who have recently emerged or who may previously have enjoyed less renown.

Who are the largest consumers of Indian art now, as compared to the past?
Indians are the largest consumers of Indian art. When Christie's began sales in this category in 1995, the clientele was primarily Indians living outside of India, who purchased 95% of the works, with 5% going to Western and East Asian clients. Within India, there were prohibitive customs duties that made it difficult to import works back to India. Today, we are seeing that clients within India are much more active, due to loosening of foreign exchange restrictions and a significant decrease in the customs duties. We are also seeing much more interest from our Western post-war and contemporary art collectors, who have become more aware of the works of Indian artists in fairs, museum exhibitions and biennales.

High-end Indian consumers are said to favor long-term assets, such as jewels, gold, etc., more than transient luxury goods. Is the increased interest in art a reflection of or departure from traditional trends in spending?
Some Indian clients see Indian art within the art market as an asset class or form of investment, in light of the rapid rise of values of the works, while others buy for decoration, status, or posterity, as a number of Christie's clients are building museums. The increased interest in art stands alongside the traditional long-term assets, such as property, cars, jewelry, luxury goods and the like. However, art is still very personal.

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