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Home > India > Business > Special


Meet the master of art auction!

Kishore Singh in New Delhi | March 24, 2008

Neville Tuli has been having a good week. A few days after his arts institution Osian's was evaluated at Rs 840 crore (Rs 8.4 billion), with Dubai-based private equity firm Abraaj Capital acquiring a 9.4 per cent stake in it for Rs 80 crore (Rs 800 million), Tuli's recent auction of Indian modern and contemporary art fetched an astounding Rs 30.38 crore (Rs 303.8 million), in a market soothsayers have been predicting the end of for some time now.

Is Tuli having the last laugh? Not likely. The man with the golden tongue and predictable quotes ("India's lack of an art institution . blah, blah, blah.") was arguably the first to recognise the worth of the domestic art market.

In the face of excoriating criticism for his heavy-footed ways at a time when artists treated their profession like an extension of the Bengali adda, he set about building an art environment from scratch - and succeeded.

Anyone who has seen him talking to groups of school kids - try explaining FN Souza's nudes to giggly pimpled and acned teenagers - will understand at least a bit of the passion that drives him.

In the years when he was acquiring paintings, organising auctions, he would sleep often on a sofa in his office. His appetite is non-existent, he's the guru of the gab when it comes to putting forth his often forceful views on India's (lack of) cultural institutions, and over lunch will prefer to tease than eat his food (explaining his enviable size 28 waist).

His 'The Flamed Mosaic' and later his auction catalogues were among the first quality publications on Indian art. But signaling his interest in popular culture, Tuli started acquiring cinema posters and memorabilia (making Bollywood trendy for many Indians) at about the same time that he started investing money in buying Indian and popular memorabilia from the West - especially anything that was related to magic (think Houdini), and masks.

His acquisition of the cine magazine Cinemaya and the related film festival (now the annual Osian's Cinefan festival) as also the rights to the Durand football cup, was another pointer that he intended to demystify Indian art by including everything from Tagore paintings to footballers' jerseys on the same platform.

Not that Tuli's Midas touch always won him kudos. Those consigning paintings to his auctions have sometimes questioned the merit of his gavel call, senior artists have called his approach ham-handed, and before Osian's was formed, its predecessor, the HEART foundation, became infamous when an auction was stopped because one of the lots included pashmina, the sale of which is banned by the government.

At another Osian's auction, artist Sanjay Bhattacharyya caused a scandal when he claimed - correctly, as it turned out - that a Bikash Bhattacharjee painting was a fake.

Are these mere teething problems, a symptom of what ails the Indian art bazaar, or Tuli's Achilles heel?  For some years now, Tuli's attempt to create a physical institution and archives has resisted success, though his buyout of the Minerva cinema in Mumbai and its renovation to become the Osianama foundation could be a pointer in that direction.

He has said that the Abraaj Capital stake will help him get a global footprint, but sceptics say the sale might have to do with liquidity requirements to fund such an institution.

An easier way might just have been to put a fraction of his huge art collection on the block. After all, the dizzying prices of the masters owe a great deal of that verticality to his grip on that market.



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