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Interested in collecting art? Read this...

Last updated on: January 16, 2012 14:39 IST

Interested in collecting art? Read this...

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Gargi Gupta

Indian collectors can now buy works by some of the best-known Western modern artists and at prices less than what they've paid for some works by the Indian modern masters.

Saffronart, the home grown online art auctioneer, is adding a new category to the merchandise on its website - Impressionist and Modern Art.

Featuring 75 works by eminent 19th and 20th century artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, Henri Matisse, Andy Warhol, Joan Miro, Henri Moore and Marc Chagall, the inaugural auction will take place on February 15-16, with previews in Mumbai and Delhi at which potential buyers can walk in to see the masterpieces before they bid on them.

The idea, says Nish Bhutani, Saffronart's chief operating officer and spokesperson, is to reach out to buyers in India who are now starting to look at Western art.

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Image: Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night Over the Rhone.
Photographs: vangoghpaintings.net

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"Our research shows that a growing number of Indians are bidding and buying artworks by European masters at auctions abroad. The numbers are very small yet but we want to be the ones to catch the nascent trend."

"Christie's Indian clients' collecting interests increasingly cross a wide variety of fields and categories," agrees Menaka Kumari Shah, director and country head for the international auction house, adding that while South Asian modern and contemporary art remains an important category, Christies' clients in the region are also interested in Impressionist and Modern works of art, photography, silver, furniture, wines, watches and jewellery.

Interestingly, Saffronart, which began operations in 2000 with a focus on modern and contemporary Indian art (and some works by Pakistani artists too of late), included fine jewellery and watches on its auction platform in 2008, prime real estate in 2010, antiquities last year and now, Modern and Impressionist Art.

Indians buying Western modern art is not an entirely new phenomenon, as Shah points out.

The princes of the Raj era were well-known patrons of Western art and design, and many palaces, ancestral homes and mansions still contain lots of European art.

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Image: Menaka Kumari Shah.
Photographs: Courtesy, Christie's

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Prominent among these were Sayajirao Gaikwad and Yeshwantrao Holkar of Indore, who commissioned Constantin Brancusi, the French modernist sculptor known for his clean geometrical lines, in the 1920s to create artworks for his palace.

But that was then; as the rajas lost their wealth, most of these works of art were sold. Post Independence, few Indians considered buying Western art.

Until now, it seems.

The most expensive of the lot at the upcoming Saffronart sale will be a small, around one-foot-square oil on canvas, named "L'allee aux deux Promeneurs" or "Country lane with two figures, that Van Gogh painted in 1885 at Nuenen, the small town in south Netherlands where he lived for three years, polishing his craft with drawings of village scenes and peasants.

The painting is priced at $800,000-$1 million, which is less than the $1 million-1.5 million that the Tyeb Mehta at Saffronart's autumn auction last September was estimated at.

That Mehta painting from the 1980s was an important work and went for a winning bid of $1.56 million (Rs 7.19 crore).
But if Indian bidders can get a Van Gogh, albeit a minor though distinctive painting, for less than an Indian master, they can get a Picasso for even less - $400,000-450,000 or nearly Rs 2.1 crore-2.4 crore - and a Warhol lithograph for just between $5,000 and $7,000 (Rs 2.6 lakh and Rs 3.6 lakh).

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Image: Van Gogh's Lallee aux deux promeneurs.
Photographs: saffronart.com

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Saffronart, of course, is not the first to read the opportunity that the growing base of buyers in India willing to pay top prices for art present.

The pioneer here is Marigold Fine Art, a venture of luxury entrepreneur Madan Assomull and his sons Gaurav and Vikram (they have the licence to distribute and retail the Judith Leiber brand of luxury accessories), which opened in November 2008 a gallery at the DLF Emporio mall in New Delhi to showcase and promote European art, both modern and contemporary.

The accent here, in the words of Gaurav Assomull, the gallery's CEO, is on "owning a piece of history" which also is a "luxury" item.

Marigold has, thus, brought in lithographs by Picasso, sculptures by Dali, a bronze cast limited edition of Auguste Rodin's world famous "The Thinker" and "The Kiss", mixing it up with works by other, lesser-known-in-India artists such as the French-American Arman, and by the stars of contemporary Western art such as Damien Hirst, David Kracov, Julian Opie, Jorg Doring, and many others.

With prices ranging from under Rs 1 crore {Rs 10 million} (for the Rodin) to Rs 40 lakh for Hirst, the gallery claims to have sold anywhere between 65 and 85 per cent of its artworks at each of its shows.

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Image: Auguste Rodin's The Thinker.
Photographs: Courtesy, Wikipedia

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Rodin was also the star attraction at the last India Art Summit, where Robert Bowman Modern had installed several of his iconic sculptures at its booth.

The London-based gallery was one of three exhibitors at the fair who had brought in masterpieces of early 20th century European art to Pragati Maidan, the other two being German - Die Galerie from Frankfurt and Beck and Eggeling from Dusseldorf.

The crowds were no less pressing at these latter stalls, which is a testimony to the recall value and powerful hold that these artists have even today on Indians, as indeed on people everywhere - if only because of sensational news of the tens of millions that they sell for at international auctions.

For most of the visitors this was the first time they were getting to see these masterpieces in the original - since there are no modern Western art museums in the country and travelling shows seldom touch down on Indian soil.

But did the artworks sell? "[There was] great atmosphere and many enthusiastic collectors," writes Maren Kirchhoff, curator and manager of Die Galerie in an email from Frankfurt, but these were mainly interested in Picasso, Dali, Marc Chagall and Andre Masson.

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Image: Marc Chagall's I and the Village.
Photographs: theeyesofmyeyes.wordpress.com
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"It was the name and the signature more than artistic merit that swayed buyers here," she says.

The gallery managed to sell a Picasso, a medium-sized paper work dated 1925 and titled "Scene du Tauromachie", for Rs 2.3 crore (Rs 23 million).

But an important work by Andre Masson, a French surreal and Cubist painter, remained unsold, testifying to the lack of art-historical awareness among Indian buyers. Die Galerie will be back at this year's fair.

Beck & Eggeling, which participated in 2009 and 2011, was not so fortunate.

"In the first year, we made some sales to Indian collectors but after the fair all sales were cancelled for unknown reasons. The second year we did not do good business at all...in general we did not meet with serious collectors - mostly students, artists and just curious people.... All in all. it is not worth coming back as we will see the serious Indian collectors anyway at TEFAF Maastricht," says Michael Beck in response to an email query.

The auctioneers at Saffronart will be hoping that some of the collectors that Beck hopes to see at the art-fair in March in Maastricht will come their way too.


Image: Andre Masson's Ibdes in Aragon.
Photographs: newharvestdesign.com

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